Ian Robert Cowan by Jude Cowan Montague

My Father in the Land of Ghosts. What Remains after You Kick the Can?

in Authors & Books/Community/Esotericism/History/Spirituality/Spotlight

I began to write sonnets or fourteen line poems about my father two years ago. It began by thinking about their arguments. They fought over many things. They were both, in their way, very moral but had different opinions about how lives should be led. I imagine that was what attracted them to each other.

Ian Robert Cowan

My stories of my dad began with a Christmas tree. They often argued over things. My dad would arrive with stuff on the doorstep. Unrequested stuff. He had ideas about what we should want and what we shouldn’t want. Unfortunately, we often had other ideas.

Mum and dad were pretty passionate. I wrote poems thinking about how they clashed. They taught me how to fight. How to stick to my guns when I was fighting. I remembered those lessons, and out they came in taut little poems. I didn’t have many rules. I wanted honesty. I wanted a feeling of honesty. I wanted clarity, not too much poetic narrative. I desired the feeling that I was telling something robust that really reflected the people that they were, in particular the person that my dad was. He wouldn’t have wanted to be remembered in gushing flamboyant words.

I don’t want to give the impression that my father didn’t like poetry. He did. He loved it. He had to really. He was an English lecturer, Head of Teacher Training at Ulster Polytechnic. Head of marking for examination boards. He pushed books at me like a pusher pedals drugs and I was as eager as an addict. His reading list for his students he gave to me too. And the books he recommended were funny and witty, critiques of society and comedies of manners but not necessarily middle class or upper class manners. Sheridan rather than Shelley.

These preferences found their way into verse as I tried to sketch him for people who didn’t know him.


These reach-me-downs and those tee-to-tums,
lavender kid gloves, indignant looks,
insinuations, ejaculations,
some green cigars for aggrieved parties,
kind little notes, self-amusing jokes,
such pleasantries, much apologies,
his red-painted bath, their chimney glass,
a cold leg of mutton, a coal scuttle,
excuses, insults, sneers and snubs,
tin tacks, mottos, the cottage piano,
a pair of stag heads poured from plaster-of-paris –
he discovered from Pooter’s un-selfaware text
as he tripped on the scraper from a well-aimed shaft,
the petty bourgeois were worth a good laugh.

Recognise the book? One he pushed and pushed at me when I was younger but which I resisted until much older. George Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, with illustrations by Weedon Grossmith, serialised in Punch magazine in 188-89. He loved Dickens too. And Tom Lehrer. And Monty Python. I tried to summon his character by opposites.


Rolling Stones rather than Beatles

John Lennon rather than Paul McCartney

Monty Python rather than the Good Life

Outer Space rather than Inner Sanctum

Sergeant rather than Colonel

Bilko rather than Are You Being Served

The Cohen Brothers rather than Die Hard

Football rather than Pottery

Hancock rather than the Archers

Terry Collier rather than Bob Ferris

Neither Laurel nor Hardy

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Harry Graham rather than Shelley

but not many women, but not none.

Whereas my mother, she was a different kettle of fish. A methodist, brought up as such by her father (my granddad, a professional ‘cellist and whom I adored), both teetoallers. She found his drinking and his coarse working-class taste difficult. When we were young the arguments got worse and he disappeared to Northern Ireland to be, as I said, Head of Teacher Training at Ulster Poly. My mother struggled at this time with some depression, I think, but being a resilient, hard-working and resourceful maths teacher, picked herself up. She showed me how to battle through difficult times, how to survive, emotionally as well as practically. I grew up knowing the women of my family were strong. I was always on my mother’s side. But I loved my dad. And I knew, in many ways, I was more like him with my sharpness, my sense of humour, my acerbic character. Although I also got her stubbornness. They were both characters. My mother kept pushing herself respectably into the poems. Powerfully.

Thinking of my mother I remember that first poem that begin this journey. One which shows her love of nature and her dislike of the things my father brought in. This is from the period when my father had become a visitor rather than a resident, present at school holidays, from weekends for time to time. My brother and I were always pleased to see him, as was my mum, and one day the two would be reunited successfully. They remained allies.


When I stand in front of the window,
I think of my mother, looking outside.
She tells me to go into the garden
where I can look after her bushes.
Talking to leaves, and watering roots,
her face shone with affection for plants.
I don’t want a indoor tree, she said,
a tree should grow in the ground.

But when I stand by the door,
I think of my father
swearing at the cat’s precarious ascent
and the needles dropping over the carpet.
He brought the thing in.
He would throw the thing out.

My mother and father spent their final years working and living together, having bought a house in Wimereux, France on the Pas-de-Calais. A beautiful town.  My father chose it because his father had been invalided there in the First World War and returned to Manchester talking about its glories. It’s turquoise sky and sea  – they don’t call it the Côte d’Opale for nothing.  It is beautiful. The beaches are wide and flat and sandy, the mussels are plenty, the rocks are striking, it faces west so we can see the sun set over the sea. When things went wrong for me with my own husband this is where we rendezvoused all together, the three of us and my young daughter, standing in unity, in the dunes, in the wind, together in this wonderful place.

A land of ghosts.

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