Harry Oldcorn, died April 2012.


I’m at Ravencon today and doing a school visit so I won’t have much opportunity to respond to comments, but I wanted to do something a little different today. Forgive me if it seems overly self-indulgent.

You are no doubt wondering who Harry Oldcorn was. He wasn’t a writer, artist, or critic. In fact he had nothing to do with the kinds of things this site is devoted to. He worked for British Aerospace in my home town, and he was a local Labour party Councilor. He was also my uncle.

It wasn’t the easiest thing growing up bookish in a working class northern industrial town and as a teenager I never felt like I fit in. Of course, most adolescents feel that and they are probably right. If asked who of my fourteen year old peers did fit in to our grey, unemployment-ravaged landscape of terraced houses and derelict factories I don’t think I would have been able to tell you. I was lucky in that my parents were both teachers and their working class income was overlaid with middle class aspirations which centred on the value of education.

But parents are always parents, however well-meaning, and kids need validation from outside the home as well as within it. That’s where Harry came in.

His kids were younger than me and my brother, so as teenagers we used to babysit for them when my aunt and uncle were out, usually to attend some local political meeting or election night shindig. I’d babysat for other people and the routine was familiar: hang out till the parents returned, take your money and go. Not so with Harry and Carol. When they came home was when things got good.

Harry’s special gift—as I see it now, looking back 30 years—was that he took people seriously. Even kids. In his house I could say anything, no matter how outrageous—including things I wouldn’t have dared to say at home—and know that I wouldn’t be chastised or ridiculed. I’d be asked to defend my position, and then we’d talk, debate, argue even, spiritedly, passionately, but always with a sense that reason was king and that all opinions would be listened to. Harry used to say that anyone who stormed out and slammed the door, had lost the argument. So we talked, religion and politics mostly, but also art and culture, literature, television, music…whatever. He was honest and passionate to the point of cantankerousness, and neither sugar-coated what he thought, nor simplified or censored based on my age. He talked to me like a grown up, so I became one.

After those elections we would mingle with his Labor party friends as they gathered to carouse and lick their wounds, and my brother and I felt the thrill of being taken as adults. We laughed a lot:–Harry had a wonderfully subversive and self-deprecating sense of humor as well as a great, booming laugh. But mostly we talked, and for a time he was a friend and mentor who gave me a glimpse of the wider world and its workings.

It was pretty heady stuff for a fourteen year old who was just starting to figure out who he was as a thinking person. Harry made me test my assumptions and prejudices, he made me take seriously ideas I would have otherwise dismissed, and he showed me what I now think of as a dialectical mental faculty: an ability to listen, to evaluate arguments, and move between positions as their merits dictated. Such a sensibility is, of course, invaluable for the academic I became, and for writers generally who need to be able to imagine themselves in the minds of their characters. But it is also just about a kind of intellectual empathy, an ability to understand where people are coming from and why they think as they do. These are things after which I still aspire, things I believe will make me a better thinker, a better writer, a better person, and in that pursuit I honor Harry’s memory.

Many of us have people like Harry in our lives, or have had. In the decades since I left England, I saw him only a handful of times before his death, always at family functions where we never really got chance to talk, and besides—in recent years—his health was not good. Still, the disease which finally killed him (lung cancer) struck suddenly. Last week I phoned from Boston only days after he had been diagnosed (and given about a year to live) to find that he had died moments before my call. It was, and was not, a shock. I had known it was coming, but the sense of absence, of losing a part of my own past, a part of my self was momentarily paralyzing in its enormity.

So today I’m asking that we remember those who have taken some part in shaping who we are, particularly those parts of us which are central to our identities as writers. If you can, and still have the chance, take a moment to tell them you appreciate what they did for you. Remind them.

Then be one of those people for someone else.


17 comments to Harry Oldcorn, died April 2012.

  • sagablessed

    This is one of the most touching posts I have seen here. It took courage to open up about personal tradgedy, and I honor that sharing.

  • AJ – Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories about a man who sounds truly incredible. You’ve made your uncle come alive for those of us who never had the chance to meet him. I’m off to make a couple of phone calls to people who hold special places in my life…

  • AJ, he sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing. And now I am off to call my father, who, though he has always been a very difficult man, taught me the joy of spirited debate, and the ability to see things from all sides. That has stood me in good stead as a writer and as a human being.

  • Ken

    AJ, your uncle sounds like someone that would have been great to talk to. Thanks for sharing with us. You’ve given me a lot to think about today.

  • Thanks all. Good luck with your call, Faith.

  • That’s a wonderful tribute, A.J. I appreciate your willingness to share it with the rest of us. My mother and father taught us about the value of political and social debate by encouraging discussions around the dinner table. I was the youngest by far, but while my comments as a young child were often punctuated with murmurs of “Isn’t that cute…” they were also taken seriously. I never felt that I was supposed to listen while my parents and older siblings talked and argued. I was allowed and expected to jump right in.

    Both of my parents are long since gone — the price of being the youngest by so many years was that Mom and Dad were old before I was ready for them to go. But dinner times are very important in our household, too, not necessarily for political debate, but certainly for conversation and laughter. I think my parents would have enjoyed dinner at our house.

  • That was a lovely tribute! And what a fantastic name! Oldcorn sounds like he should be a character in a book. For me, I think it was my parents. We ate dinner in front of the tv, watching the news. And it was my mothers habit to be… annoyed and vocally so with what we were watching. (To put it another way, I disliked Regan by osmosis from a very young age). The elementary school and jr. high my family sent me to was very conservative. My parents were very liberal. So I learned a lot about standing my ground and stuff. I lost my mom my senior year in college, and it was so hard (still is). But I’m reminded all the time about the courage she gave me. (She was very much a “you fell down. ouch! now get back up and try again!” person). She (and my dad) encouraged me to keep doing things, even if I wasn’t good at them, and that helped me learn to cope with failure. I’ll make sure I thank my dad for all they did. 🙂

  • You made me cry, AJ. This was a wonderful tribute and I’m so glad you were able to have such an excellent person in your life. -hugs-

  • What a beautiful post, A.J. *hugs* What is remembered, lives.

  • Vyton

    A.J. Thank you for telling us about your uncle and the influence he had on you. My father took me seriously from an early age, and we worked together well. Thank you for the encouragement to reach out to those who are still with us.

  • This was a beautiful post. Thank you, AJ.

    There are many people I owe thanks to, but my grandmother stands out. She never tired of listening to me tell her, in excruciating detail, all about what ever book I was reading as a child. She wasn’t afraid to be silly and fully immersed in imagination with me, which was a great kindness to a very self conscious child who was terribly afraid of being ridiculed for being silly. She let me read in peace for hours when I visited her house. I sometimes heard her talking to another adult downstairs as I read in a sunny upstairs window – the other adult would ask if there was something wrong with me, if I was sick or avoiding people in some way. And shouldn’t I be outside playing like normal children? Grammy always answered placidly that I was just reading and was fine where I was. When she did interrupt me, often with a snack, it was never with the implication that I was spending too much time reading. She taught me how to hand scrub dirty socks, how to shell peas, and make a hospital corner on a bed. She taught me that good manners are, in her words, “the way you show others that you recognize them as people.” Most of the things she taught me, she did by engaging me in the task and telling stories as we went. I can’t make a bed today without remembering her stories about being a nurse’s aide in a mental hospital. (It makes the bed making much more interesting, let me tell you.) In a way, she was my first writing teacher, because she showed me that everything, even bedsheets, has a story and because she gave me an audience so that I felt my story telling was worth the time.

  • Thanks for sharing A J. I totally understand how you felt. I took my mother in on to get her insulin levels checked and medicine revised and two weeks later she died of lung cancer.
    We used to watch Dr. Who together all the time and we were watching an episode a few weeks before her hospital visit, i remember telling her what I think should happen on the next episode and I ended up plotting out the rest of the season. I told her I could so write for that for.that show.” She told me,”yea, you can, boo. If you put your mind to it.” Then , two years ago, I wasnt series as a writer.

  • Razziecat

    My deepest condolences, AJ. Losing someone who meant so much to you is always hard. Your uncle sounds like a wonderful man! Myself, I owe my love of reading to my mother, who read voraciously (mostly mysteries but other things as well) and encouraged her four kids to read, read, read. And I owe my love of SF & fantasy to my older brother, who gave me my first books in those genres and lent me his own. They are both gone now, but never really leave me, because they’re there every time I pick up a book.

  • Thanks for sharing A J. I totally understand how you feel. I took my mother in to get her insulin levels checked and medication revised and two weeks later, she died of lung cancer.
    We used to watch Dr. Who together all the time and we were watching an episode a few weeks before her hospital visit; I remember telling her what I think should happen on the next episode and I ended up plotting out the rest of the season. I told her I could so write for that for that show. “She told me,”yea, you can, boo. If you put your mind to it.” Then , two years ago, I wasn’t serious as a writer because I never thought could make something of these crazy stories in my head. But she encouraged me through every cooky idea, I thought I wanted to do after highschool and after awhile tried to hide them from her. She always knew. Mother’s always did. But in the end, she taught me, if I could dream it, I could do it. I just had to want it bad enough. I was always in my way, still am, but I do know now, more than anything, that I was made to tell stories. Im sorry about your lost. The important thing to remember is that God placed you uncle in your life to mold you into who you are today so you teach other what our elders have taught us.

  • Thanks everyone for your sympathy and reflective responses. Much appreciated. I’m still at the con (I was going to say ‘I’m still conning’ but that seems dangerously close to the truth) so I’ll be lying low MW-wise.

    Cheers and, again, thanks


  • This brought out some tears. I love your description of Harry Oldcorn, I feel like I knew him too!

    Thanks for writing this beautiful post and reminding us all how important it is to let people know when they’ve made an impact on our lives.

  • sagablessed

    Men die, and cattle die. But I know one thing that never dies: a man’s reputation. -Havamal