Dad used to like quoting poetry. Not whole poems, just snippets, mostly of army doggerel or surreal little verses recalled from the music hall. But he did know one of two better quality pieces, one of which was William Henry Davies’ Leisure:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
I believe he learned it from his own father. It meant something special to him at any rate, and he repeated if often.
When he got old he got depressed. It was lonely for him living with Mum in those latter years; she’d never exactly been a listener and now wouldn’t wear her hearing aids so he couldn’t have a proper conversation with her. He didn’t really want to go anywhere or do anything. If you did take him somewhere – and you had to take him everywhere – he wanted to sit down rather than walk about, so Mum used to “park” him for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. She seemed to be terrified all the while she was away from him that somehow he wouldn’t still be there when she got back.
For twenty frenetic minutes she would zoom about the shopping centre hunting down the items on her shopping list fretting about having left Dad unattended, while Dad sat on a bench and watched ladies rushing by in strange outfits, the toddlers attached to the women, young men in bellowing groups, the multi-coloured shopping bags, the wheels of push-chairs and shopping-trolleys, the walking-sticks and the worn-down shoes. Mum left the newspaper with him but didn’t read it. After a while we realised he couldn’t read it, and hadn’t been able to for some time.
Sometimes we went to Leeds Castle. Mum always wanted to go inside just to check that nothing had changed – no new oak staircase, moved portrait or missing suit of armour – but Dad didn’t; once was enough for him so he sat on the wall outside, not-reading but quietly watching.
Is there a gene for ‘standing and staring’, I wonder? Why do some people seem to feel the need to contemplate at length while others cannot bear to? If there is such a gene, two of us inherited it and the other one, like Mum, did not. On the whole, the one who did not is more successful. Standing and staring doesn’t tend to get you anywhere in life, it just makes life vaguely tolerable for those who, at intervals, find it intolerable.
I have no time to stand and stare at the moment, which doesn’t mean I don’t need to. I yearn for summer lunch hours in the Memorial Gardens many moons ago, eating my sandwiches, watching the teenagers escaped from the Technical College, prim office types with their plastic lunchboxes; the tramps, those experts in being invisible.
I remember the too-hot sunshine and the too-cool shadow, but not wanting to move. I remember the sparrows, hoping for crumbs. Sometimes the sparrows got most of my lunch, to tell the truth. How many poems got started – or finished – on one or other of those park benches? How I lingered on there, into September, October, while the leaves began to clatter and swirl around me, not wanting to give up my thinking-place. How I searched for other places to tide me over the icy months of winter – the corner table in the reference library; a straight-backed pew in an almost empty church.
Never underestimate the power of standing and staring. Never let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to, or that there are so many other things you might be doing. Think of the squirrel, the blackbird, the tramp and the falling leaf. They need their witnesses.