It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Nick Hand.
The Domesday Oak, June 2020
Back in March, my old dad was reaching the end of his days. I was at his nursing home and the chap in charge had asked if he’d ever boxed. Apparently my dad had sprung a right hook so quick that he’d not seen it coming until he was on the floor.
My memories of my dad when I was a small boy are not that great; I remember his quick temper, and his aggressive driving (so much so that my hate of cars is lifelong). Additionally, he was a Tory voter all his life, and that peaked when Mrs Thatcher sold him his council house for £2000. Strange, then, that one of the few things we had in common was a great admiration of Tony Benn. In the early sixties, Tony Benn was our MP in Bristol South East. He also almost single-handedly saved not just Rolls Royce aero engines, but in particular the Concorde project, where not just my dad, but most of my family worked.
My dad told me that Tony Benn had called him over to sit next to him at a dinner at the works once, and dad would never hear a bad word said about him. Of course, when it came to the ballot box it was another matter. I even wondered if I could trick him into voting for Jeremy Corbyn when he was too incapacitated to vote for himself.
I feel guilty for loving the peace of those first few weeks of lockdown at the end of March and beginning of April. It was so quiet in the middle of Bristol. I even lay in bed one night listening to a Tawny Owl, which I’d never heard before in the city before.
I spent my days riding around Bristol delivering food on my cargo bike (the one designed to carry a printing press), and also seeking out ancient trees in the city. The best were the 700-year-old oaks, one over the downs in the University grounds, the other called the Domesday Oak in Ashton Court. I spent some time with the ancient trees thinking about the life, death, pandemics and wars that they’ve seen.
The Domesday Oak, June 2020. It’s pretty scarred through time, but I’d imagine anything 700 years old is entitled to be
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was brilliant in every way and was a huge highlight of the year for me. It was moving, beautiful, soulful and had a brilliant soundtrack. I can’t think in my lifetime of seeing anything as good on television.
So like it was for everyone, a year like no other. My dad was the last of the close family that I grew up with in the little council estate on the edge of Bristol, where he lived for nearly seventy years. We did get on — I think he liked my independence and resilience as a kid. My big brother and I would laugh at his macho ways: he loved pulling engines apart in the dead of winter, whereas we would disappear off to find birds’ nests and slowworms.
I tried to read at his funeral, but couldn’t utter a word and Harriet had to take over. I did want to tell it like it was, about how he was a violent and mean person for much of his life, but something stopped me — maybe it was the gentleness that he discovered (a bit too late in life). Mind you it didn’t stop him, at 89, asking me to go next door with him as back-up as he was going to confront the neighbour for cutting a fence post down. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Yesterday, we walked past the old Domesday Oak and some little kids were running around it. I thought about the children that had climbed it and run around that tree for hundreds of years. There is a calmness about the old trees, and I think that’s what I’d like to remember most about the year, the calm in the city and the slowing of things. I’d like to hold onto that a bit longer at least.
One of the Grace Beeches from 1860, planted to mark the boundary of the pitch the one time Gloucestershire County Cricket team played here. It is on the Durdham Downs. Photographed April 2020.