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.