Downy Grows Up

A slim book bound in blue fabric, with a large orange print of a flower on the cover. The fabric faded with age, the pages faintly yellowed. A dedication to him on the title page: This book was made and printed by Grandad Heath for Alexander. Then the title itself: Downy grows up.

His grandad had made the book at night school. He liked to think about him tending to his delicate project, with the large strong hands which had once taken his as a child. Writing the story. Planning the artwork. Shaping the wood block. Arranging the letters. Sewing the pages. Pasting the fabric. Making the final print on the cover. Penning the dedication to his grandson. Working with care and love.

He liked to move his own hands over the book as his grandad once had done. Feeling the textured fabric next to the smooth paper; letting his gaze settle on the shape of the printed shapes, the earthiness of the colours. He found it soothing, calming. Restorative.

Within the beautiful object was a story of equivalent simple beauty: a seed, blown from a dandelion clock, takes root in the ground and grows into a flower. Beginning, middle and end.

In truth, the narrative and aesthetic approach bore more than a little similarity to Eric Carle’s book The Tiny Seed. He couldn’t say for sure that his granddad had plagiarised Carle’s work, but certain elements bore Carle's hallmark. Where Downy departed from The Tiny Seed was in its simple presentation, his use of muted colours and spare, almost Imagist poetic register.

In both books the anthropomorphized seed served an allegorical purpose: using the mutability of the natural world to represent the process of coming into being, the emotional and intellectual foundations of a child’s interior world. Reflecting on his writing for children, Carle said that he wanted to ‘bridge the gap between home and school’, believing that the passage from home to school was ‘the second biggest trauma of childhood’.

To the paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, ‘it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self’. For Winnicott, the real and the imaginative life ‘are one and the same thing, because the infant at the beginning does not perceive objectively, but lives in a subjective state, being the creator of all’. This shift in perception from the subjective to an appreciation of the not-me world is marked by that transition from home to school, from seeing one’s self as a solitary beautiful flower to being but one in a vast field.

To accomplish this transition, Winnicot wrote, the child must be well cared for, within its immediate and extended environment. This, according to the psychologist, generates a ‘continuity of existence that becomes a sense of existing, a sense of self, and eventually results in autonomy’. Paradoxically, according to Winnicott, the child is alone ‘only in the presence of someone’.

To be autonomous and alone required the positive contribution of others. Throughout his own childhood and adolescence he had often never felt more alone that in the presence of others.

Rarely had he felt this in the presence of his grandparents. Yet their stimulation of his imagination, his creative and independent self, brought him much joy, and much misery, over time. As children at his grandparents’ home, he and his brother had been actively encouraged to read, often invited to select a book from the small library in their hallway. The books they were introduced to at their grandparents’ house were unlike those they encountered at school or at home.

In becoming a reader, he became aware of the empathetic strain which binds the human species together; and yet it could do little to control his narcissistic impulses, the flashes of cruelty and indignant, irrational rage that welled up from his unconscious. The more he read, it seemed, the more unhappy he became.

When his grandparents met his gran was training to be a primary school teacher; later his grandad followed her into the profession. His becoming a teacher coincided with his becoming a grandparent. It was then h grandad's love of art grew, and he tried to nurture his grandson’s nascent creativity as he developed his own.

They spent many hours together on overcast Sundays seated at the table in the dining room of their bungalow, the huge windows framing their garden. His grandad determinedly tried to impart the finer details of drawing technique to his grandson, who determinedly tried to run before he could walk, and became increasingly dispirited at his inability to draw like Leonardo da Vinci.

When he and his granddad produced art together, individually rather than collaboratively, they almost always used pencils to sketch, rather than paint or practice the block-printing of the Downy book, whose primitivistic images subtly recalled Henri Matisse’s gouaches découpés; more so, perhaps, than Carle’s overly-exuberant collages. He was unsure of his grandad’s familiarity with Matisse’s cutouts, but when he himself encountered them, many years later, he was struck by their similarity to some of the images in the book.

Famously, after being diagnosed with cancer and confined to a wheelchair, Matisse, no longer able to paint or sculpt, discovered a new way of working by cutting shapes out of painted paper and arranging them as a collage. A kind of naïve art in reverse.

By embracing this simplified approach to colour and form, Matisse revived his aesthetic vision and remade himself as an artist. ‘Une second vie’, Matisse later called the last fourteen years of his life. ‘Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated’. He was fortunate to survive the cancer; doubly fortunate to discover a liberating technique.   

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For someone without a natural proclivity to artistic genius, his grandad’s own naïve artistic aesthetic was hard won, worked at and eked out over decades. His beginnings were inauspicious, and couldn’t have been more different to that of Matisse, the son of a wealthy grain merchant and product of French academe.

Born into a working class family in the Potteries, the youngest of five brothers, two of whom fought and died in the Second World War. His father was an alcoholic; his mother held the family together. She was a small, tenacious woman who died when his grandson was an infant. He had a dim memory of visiting her home, being guided into the semi-dark of a cluttered living room, where she was seated in a chair. The memory was so faint, so unreal, that he often wondered if he had imagined it.

After leaving school at fourteen his grandad worked in a potbank for a period, before reporting to the army aged seventeen for his national service, where he served during the Suez Crisis. After being demobbed his grandad retrained as a mechanic; after several years, he retrained again to become a teacher; after retirement, he focused on art.

Winnicott believed that all creative expression is a way of hiding in plain sight. ‘It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster to be found’, Winnicott wrote, determining that ‘artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’. His grandad’s pursuit of his own personal aesthetic, through his naïve art, was part of a lifelong process of restless reinvention; in turn, it was reflective the social mobility of the postwar period, as he transitioned from pot-bank worker to salaried teacher over a couple of decades.

He was unsure if his grandad was hiding himself or making something of himself through his art. Perhaps it was neither, perhaps it was both. When he began painting postcard sized watercolours for friends and family, he signed them FRH. Frederick Roy Heath. The initials sounded as regal as his first name, Frederick, a name no one but the taxman used. He was Roy, first and foremost. Sometimes Father, and after that Grandad, but always Roy. Frederick was a boy long lost to time, and yet here he was again, resurrected through art.

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Disappearances and resurrections. How often we treat goodbyes as a deferral, a delaying of the inevitable. How rarely the finality the word implies.

He had just left university when his grandad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. There was a bungling over his diagnosis, and it was months before he sought treatment. By then it was of course too late. He was given months to live. The strong, gentle man of his childhood was slowly eviscerated by the disease. He took to using one walking stick, then two, until he could no longer walk. The combination of the cancer attacking his central nervous system and his treatment left him wracked with spasms, unable to draw.

His grandad spent his final months confined to a bed in the dining room, looking out on an overgrown garden, his pupils dulled with morphine. As a family they shared one last meal, when his grandad was still well enough to eat solid food. While his gran and mother cleared away the plates and remains of the meal, he wordlessly refilled his grandad’s wine glass for him, which he duly downed.

Months became weeks. The next time he visited was the last time he saw him alive. When he walked into the dining room to greet him, the look his grandad gave him bore no trace of recognition. The pain of the cancer and the drugs had taken his grandad to the verge of delirium. He retreated to the kitchen, and stayed there for the rest of the visit.

Weeks became days became hours. The phone rang out in the darkness, waking him. Murmurs from the kitchen below his bedroom. Then followed the noise of his mother’s car turning over in the cold, before crawling up the gravel drive. She returned home that afternoon exhausted, shattered with grief, her eyes red raw. He was seventy-one years old. In one final cruel twist, her father's death had fallen on her silver wedding anniversary.

For the cremation his gran had asked him to read a poem he had written, which he did, tersely, nursing a fierce fury at his grandad’s death. At the wake, a friend of his grandparents inappropriately toasted his poem with a glass of wine, and he raised a glass to his own lips with a thin smile, knowing that his grandad thought the man a fool.

Like Downy Grows Up, his poem reflected upon the the intertwining of the seasons: how each leaves its imprint on the next, as a long winter leads to a belated spring, a hot summer accounts for resplendent autumns. The natural world exists in permanent flux, a continual dialogue with itself, and with us. He hadn't realised it at the time, but he couldn't have written the poem without his grandad's book. 

Embedded within his grandad’s short story was the germination of his funeral poem. The Downy book also contained Carle’s The Tiny Seed, and a later text, very similar, called The Dandelion Seed. They were all there, and by coincidence all three called to mind to the Parable of the Sower from the Gospels, which he first heard in assembly at infant school.

A sower casts seed indiscriminately. Some falls on the path, some on rocky ground, some amid thorns. The seeds which land on fertile soil take root. Some are receptive to the Word of God, and help it flourish; others turn away and look elsewhere for illumination. The parabolic narrative of the sower heralded the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, success over failure. He heard it, he understood it, but he didn't trust it.

Before he had wanted to be a writer he had wanted to be an artist, and after he recognized his limitations as an artist and a writer he had hoped to be a journalist or a poet, or failing that just a decent human being, and in every instance he had blown it. He had been undone by an excess of knowledge. His parents and his grandparents had high hopes for him, their well-educated first born, and he had failed them.

When his grandad made that book, a lifetime of reading lay ahead for his grandson. It was like a downy clock of seeds ready to be blown on the wind. Every story contains within it the possibility of another story; each text extends beyond itself into other texts. There is always a multitude of references, permutations and alternatives, just as there are libraries to be filled with as yet untold stories for those not yet born.

He saw a faint echo of this in Roland Barthes’ argument that every text is no more than a tissue of quotations, a script of language which is activated by the reader. For Winnicott, in communicating every artist seeks to vanish; for Barthes, in the act of writing, the writer cedes control to the reader, and makes himself disappear. In keeping with this, his grandad had forgotten to put his name on the cover of the book.

Another writer he admired, the American novelist Siri Hustvedt, wrote that everyone lives with the ghosts of those who have disappeared inside them. After they disappear, we move through rooms surrounded by their former possessions. Shared experiences reconsolidate themselves in our memory, while objects associated with the other take on what Winnicott termed a transitional purpose. They soften grief in some way.

He could not help but be moved by the Downy book. It reminded him continually of the passage of time. The lag of years, decades, epochs. Each year the little book grew a little older. His own children had already outgrown it. They had been given another book called Grandad’s Island by Benji Daviesa gentle allegory which sensitively depicted the transition between growing up, growing old and saying goodbye. 

He would sit with his children and read the Downy book with them, but he didn’t trust them to take sufficient care of it, so kept it stowed on a shelf, out of their reach. When alone he ran his hands over the careworn and faded pages of the book, trying to mimic his grandad’s touch, to handle it in the way he would have when it was finished. With care and love.

By now his own memories of his grandad had faded like the cover of his book, condensed down to a handful of abiding remembrances which in time would diminish and all but disappear. When they asked him, he found it hard to explain to his young children who his grandad was. The act of forgetting had already begun.