Death, Bowie, and the last house on Holland Island

holland island house

Dad tried hard to hold back the water,
Sank a barge, piled sandbags on sandbags,
But we knew, we all saw the fear in his eyes.
The last house on Holland Island is slipping under,
And taking our history with it.

The first time I sang this Seafieldroad song, The Last House on Holland Island, in front of an audience was on 16 February 2014, less than a month after my dad died. Since the song is about being afraid of my dad dying, and I was still in shock that it had actually happened, I should perhaps have cancelled the gig. It was uncomfortable for me and probably awkward for the people watching.

Anyway, today is the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and I’ve decided to call time on the whole Seafieldroad thing. These two events are not unconnected. It has something to do with moving on (I have written about my dad’s death twice already, here and here; this is definitely the last time I’m going to do it). It also has something to do with David Bowie, whose extraordinary farewell to the world must have given a lot of people who write songs pause for thought.

All these islands will sink,
All these houses will fall.

It is 19 January, 2014, and I am driving as fast as I can towards the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley. I don’t know how much time I have. An hour? Less? I want to go faster but my mum is in the passenger seat and I’m worried that, in my rush to reach one parent, I’ll jeopardise the safety of the other.

It was my idea to leave. It was mid-afternoon, we had been by Dad’s bed since early morning, and Mum was exhausted. She needed a break, so I suggested I drive her home and make her dinner, give her a rest from all this. Then we could come back. She wasn’t convinced, but I persuaded her. My sister would still be there and she could call us if there was any change. After all we could be here all night, maybe longer.

And so Mum agreed, and we walked slowly down to the car park in silence, still in shock, unable to process the fact that it would now be days, at most, until it was all over and he was gone. We drove back along the motorway, over the Erskine Bridge, into Dumbarton, towards home. And then, on the dual carriageway, my phone began buzzing in my pocket.

The staircase has long since collapsed.
All of the secrets hidden in the attic
fall and dissolve in the silt
until none of it matters anymore.

The last house on Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA, was built in the winter of 1888. At that time the island was a thriving community of fishing and boatman families, with around 70 homes. But in 1914 it began to sink into the water. The cause: post-glacial rebound, a process in which land masses rise and fall over thousands of years, as the weight of glaciers created during the last ice age gradually lifts. The west side of the island disappeared first, eroded by the tides, pushing the residents eastwards. For the next four years they desperately tried to protect their homes by building stone walls, but it was no use. In 1918, after a storm damaged the church, the last family gave up and abandoned the island to the water. Nothing more could be done. In truth, there was never anything to be done. Even in the 17th century, when European colonists first settled there – including Daniel Holland, who would give the island its name – the forces that would destroy it were already moving slowly and silently into place.

And so foolishly we’ll try to beat them anyway.
Yeah there is no authority that we won’t argue with.
 

It seems to take forever to get back to the hospital, but it can’t be more than 20 minutes. I drive straight up to the drop-off point and tell Mum to go on in while I park the car. As I watch her shuffle anxiously and hurriedly through the glass doors at the entrance, wondering how painful all this is on her hip, I call my sister to let her know she’s on her way. I’m worried that, in her exhaustion, Mum won’t remember where the ward is and will get lost. I’m worried about the precious time this will waste. But as soon as my sister answers the phone I know it’s too late. He is already gone, she tells me. I drive down to the car park, shaking. I phone my wife to tell her Mum and I won’t be coming back to the house after all. I am crying so hard I can barely get the words out. It was my idea to leave, I tell her. It’s my fault.

P1040114

Hold on to what makes sense, wrap it up tight.

Almost 80 years after the final family left Holland Island, a man made one last attempt to save it. In 1995, Stephen White, a Methodist minister who had grown up on the island, paid $70,000 for the 1888 house, now the last building standing, and then spent 15 years and $150,000 trying to hold back the water with rocks, wooden breakwaters, sandbags, even a sunken barge. It was an extraordinary act of defiance against nature. But just as in 1914, it proved futile. White became ill and had to abandon his efforts and leave the island. The final photos taken of his empty, house, before it collapsed into the bay, look like something out of a dream, a shell of a two-storey building perched on the water, like a hastily constructed, half-collapsed ark. It’s an incredibly evocative image, precarious and lonely. In one of the photos, dozens of birds are perched on the roof. Sometimes when I look at the images I see one of Escher’s impossible drawings, a building that could never exist. Sometimes they look apocalyptic, an alternate finale to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and his son finally reach the coast only to encounter further evidence of the end of the world.

The photographs also make me think of my dad, a stubborn man who refused to accept how ill he was for a long time. He would insist that he was unable to stand up properly ‘at the moment’, or was unable to remember simple domestic details ‘at the moment’, and would irritably blame others for the black holes in his memory: ‘Nobody tells me anything!’ became something of a catchphrase in his later years, as he gradually slipped away from us, into the water of Chesapeake Bay. He was, obviously, afraid. For every moment when he seemed to be in complete denial, there was another when he would awkwardly silence the room with some morbid, apparently throwaway remark about how in about five years he’d be dead. He was very much like a man looking anxiously out of the windows of his home, seeing water in every direction, and grumpily announcing that he didn’t feel like going for a walk today.

And you know to survive you’ve got to keep warm
but you just want to give up, cry, and throw the doors open. 

Sometimes I find myself wondering how much Stephen White’s faith gave him solace, and how much it was a source of torment. I also wonder what it might have been like to grow up in that household, watching your father devote his life to such a lost cause, watching it make him ill.

Hold on to what makes sense, hold on to me.

In the winter of 1988, exactly a hundred years after White’s Holland Island home was built, I began writing songs on a cheap Yamaha synthesiser my dad had bought me as a Christmas present on the condition that I got music lessons, a condition to which I agreed, a little reluctantly. I was 15 years old. I bought two tiny microphones and a cassette recorder, and resolved to make futuristic music. My role models were the Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Kraftwerk, anyone else making music with machines. It quickly became an obsession. Every few months I would record a cassette full of new songs. Some people would call these recordings demos. Being a teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were albums. Each had a title and its own hand-made cover artwork. Each was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so is more or less an hour long. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar (as long as it wasn’t too ‘rock’) or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own, creating all the music on my cheap little machine, a little boy dreaming of the future. By album number 14 or 15 I was so pleased with my progress that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). I kept up this behaviour for about six years. By the time I was in my twenties I had recorded almost 40 hours of music, most of which has never been heard by anybody.

In other words, my teenage years were largely lost to a musical instrument my dad bought me. The great irony of this was that he always seemed indifferent to the music I was making – because, to be fair, it was so alien to him. He liked classical music and jazz, the kind of music he played myself (on the cello or double bass). He would be lost without sheet music and was always baffled that my brother in law, a successful professional musician, couldn’t read it. He was bemused by drum machines, and pop music in general. He would complain that he couldn’t hear the words, or that it was rhythmically monotonous, or that it had no proper tunes. If this was the future, he didn’t want it.

It was when I was 20 that David Bowie became a significant influence. It’s been fascinating for me, reading all the tributes over the past couple of weeks, not one of which describes the relationship that I had with Bowie. The Bowie of the 1970s and 1980s, the one who transformed the lives of Momus and Suzanne Moore, somehow passed me by – 1970s Bowie because I was too young, 1980s Bowie because I was probably too obsessed with synthesisers to notice anything else. Bowie was also, I remember thinking at the time, a bit rock – more Q magazine than Smash Hits. And what the hell was that whole Tin Machine thing about? I vaguely knew the hits (so I was, I suppose, as much of a Bowie fan as David Cameron) but I didn’t properly listen to Ziggy Stardust, or Low, or even Let’s Dance, until decades after they came out.

Instead, the first time I really noticed Bowie was when he released the albums Black Tie, White Noise (in 1993) and Outside (in 1995). I particularly loved Outside, his weird, creepy sci-fi concept album about people being murdered and turned into art, which was very appealing to a depressed youth who had just got into Brett Easton Ellis, Cindy Sherman and David Cronenberg. I quite liked Earthling, his drum and bass album, too. It was oddly exciting to me that a 50-year-old man was making a drum and bass album and emerging with dignity intact. It was, if I’m honest, ammunition against my dad, who kept insisting I would grow out of pop music by the time I was 30. No, I thought, this is what I want to be like when I’m older. Bowie, rather than a roadmap for teenage self-expression, was for me a kind of alternative father figure.

Something as small as a keyboard and a microphone
can tell you the world is endless and you’re not alone
but also that you’re not a child and that you can’t go home.

And then, in my mid twenties, I became friends with Hamish Brown, a huge Bowie fan who would quickly fill in the gaps in my Bowie knowledge, and with whom I finally got to make a proper album, The Regional Variations by Swimmer One, which married my Pet Shop Boys obsession and his Bowie obsession with what I still think are pretty great results. We got played on daytime Radio One, a dream come true for the 1988 me. There were features and reviews in national newspapers and magazines. One of the songs was used in a movie. I proudly presented Dad with a copy of the album. As far as I know he didn’t listen to this either. At the end of that year he wrote a newsletter for the various family members scattered across the country. The Regional Variations – five years in the making, and the achievement I was most proud of in my life up to that point – merited no mention at all. I was furious with him. For years and years.

The thing is, I idolised my dad – more so than any pop star – and, like so many children, desperately wanted his approval. As a child I thought he knew everything. There was no question he didn’t seem able to answer, a skill he had acquired over many years working as a teacher. Looking back, our relationship often felt more like one between a teacher and a pupil than a father and a son (that synthesiser was part of my education). He was not, in my memory, a very demonstrative man. So while he was my idol, he sometimes felt as distant and unattainable as David Bowie. He showed me love by recommending things to read, talking to me about politics and philosophy and religion (much as Bowie did via his music, in fact). After I left home Dad would send me newspaper clippings with handwritten notes he’d made (Bowie didn’t do that, sadly).

The older I got, of course, the more I saw the gaps in his knowledge. The moment I knew I had grown up was the moment when I realised that, in some respects, I knew more about the world than he did. This is true for lots of people, I’m sure, but it came as quite a shock to me, given how little I felt that I knew. Put another way, I related to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the truth about the wizard is revealed – the moment you realise the wizard is just a man.

dad and me

The world is not what you thought it was,
and nothing I can say will help,
but I can give you car keys and time,
and you can do the rest yourself.

I am staring at my dad’s corpse. My mum is sitting by the bed, looking utterly drained. My sister is trying to say comforting things, although this is obviously awful for her too. She can see how guilty I feel, and how devastated Mum is. We couldn’t have known. He would barely have been aware of Mum being there in those final moments anyway. And of course she’s right. After Dad’s first stroke he could still grip our hands, and he could still meet our gaze, just about, even if he couldn’t talk or stand up or do anything for himself. And you could sense his sadness, his frustration and anger at the situation. He kept trying to get out of the bed. After the second stroke, though, all that stopped. He just sat and stared into the middle distance, breathing heavily. We would talk to him, we would hold his hand, but it was impossible to tell how much, if anything, was getting through. That last morning, after the hospital called us in, it was immediately obvious that it was over, that it would be days at most, if not hours. Holland Island was already lost to forces bigger than us and there was nothing we could do.

And yet the symbolism is painful. Mum wasn’t there for the moment of his death. And it feels as if that matters. We should have been there for his last breath, the moment the house finally slipped underwater, out of sight. She should have been there. And now he is empty, absent, a husk. The water is still and silent.

In the years since, I have been told two things that made me feel better about this moment. The first is that Mum, straining to see through the fog of old age, has come to believe she was there when Dad died. Nobody is going to correct her. The second is that it is apparently quite common for people on the verge of death to slip away when their loved ones have left the room. It is as if they cannot bring themselves to go when they are there; when they leave it is a release, and they can go in peace. I don’t know if this is true, but the possibility is comforting.

Since The Regional Variations I have released four more albums – one more with Swimmer One, and three as Seafieldroad. While none has been a ‘hit’, they have all found small audiences, a few kindred spirits scattered across the world like tiny islands in a vast ocean. Aside from occasional tantrums of ingratitude, my ego is mostly fine with this outcome, (although I would by lying if I said I never crave more attention than I’ve had). If I’m honest, though, the thing that bothers me most, still, is that my dad never seemed to love any of this music. Dad, why buy me the fucking keyboard in the first place if you didn’t care about what I did with it? I am aware of how childish and petulant this sounds, how childish and petulant and wholly unreasonable it is.

Tie up those loose ends,
before it’s too late,
before he’s gone.
It won’t be that long now.

It is somewhat ironic that the album of mine that my dad would be most likely to enjoy is the one I finished after he died. The Winter of 88, by Seafieldroad, has tunes that he would recognise as tunes, proper instruments (a trumpet!), no drum machines whatsoever, and choral singing not unlike the music he would listen to at church, which sounds the way it does partly because I grew up going to that church too, and it seeped into my brain. Recently I have been wondering whether this album was, subconsciously, my final attempt to reach out to him, despite the fact that when I was writing and recording it he was at a point in his life when music, of any kind, meant less and less to him. Was I turning into Stephen White, revisiting the scene of my childhood, stubbornly trying to rebuild something that was clearly already lost?

You are so small now,
afraid of the world outside,
the cold that could kill you if you let it in.

P1060155

While I was writing the songs for The Winter of 88, Dad had a fall on the seafront near his home, blacked out, and had to be helped home by two strangers. He had no memory of this, but afterwards he was never the same. He barely left the house, talked much less, and was much more quiet and humble. The belligerence, the denial, began to disappear, replaced by what seemed like acceptance. I wrote a very personal song about this, The World is Just Noise, a way of processing my conflicted feelings about his gradual disappearance into silence and darkness, about the way the grieving process can often begin long before someone actually dies.

At the time I thought it was the only song on the album that was explicitly about my dad. But as time passes I think that far more of the album was about him than I realised. The Winter of 88 begins with an island sinking into the sea (The Last House on Holland Island), and ends with a journey to a new one (in a song called Islands of the North Atlantic). The first island, clearly, is my dad’s death. I’m still figuring out what the second island is. The phrase ‘islands of the north Atlantic’ was suggested during the Northern Irish peace process as a politically neutral alternative to ‘British Isles’. It’s often shortened to its acronym – IONA. So the ferry in the song might be going to the real Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, a part of the world that I associate strongly with my family, since we spent all our summer holidays there. Or it might be going to the more mythical Iona evoked by that acronym, a place described by Bertie Ahern (in 2006, in my home city of Edinburgh) as ‘a powerful symbol of relationships between these islands, with its ethos of service not dominion’. That partly reflects my feelings about my parents, an English man and a Scottish woman, a union that couldn’t help shaping my attitude towards national identity, and towards Scotland’s independence debate, which crept into the lyrics of at least one song on the album (This Road Won’t Build Itself).

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems like that ferry represents the journey towards an island – a life, a world – where my dad is no longer present. ‘I don’t know where this ship goes,’ the song concludes. ‘I don’t know if there’s an island.’ I could also have added, ‘I don’t know who’s steering this damn thing. Is it me?’

There is a curious parallel between my life now and my childhood. I was born when my dad was 40, his third child and his only son. So all my most vivid memories of him, the memories forged in early childhood, are of a man in his forties. And I was 40 when my third child, my only son, was born, three months after my dad died. I have stepped into my dad’s place, and my son has stepped into mine, and as I enter a new phase of fatherhood in my forties, I hear my dad’s voice in mine, and see my dad’s face in mine, on an almost daily basis. The way family history repeats and loops is sometimes comforting, sometimes unsettling. I never met my grandpa, my dad’s dad. He died just after I was born, and exists to me only as descriptions, photos, an idea of a person – the same relationship my son will now have with his grandpa.

And so I started not knowing where I’d go or if anyone would care. Winter of 88.

Winter of 88 mailout

Creatively, too, in many ways I have come full circle. The Winter of 88’s physical release consisted of 88 CDs with handmade artwork – based on a collection of pebbles found by the seaside – not a million miles from the handmade sleeves of my 38 early ‘albums’. Meanwhile, like most musicians in middle age, I have stopped trying to write music that sounds like the future. Instead I am mining my own past, emulating the music that has stayed with me over the years, like Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver LiningTalk Talk’s Laughing Stockthe Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.

And this is where David Bowie comes back in. When I began to accept what The Winter of 88 was, I decided I should give up writing songs. It had become my Holland Island, I thought – a lost cause, obsessively pursued with ever diminishing commercial and artistic returns and, increasingly, based on clinging to the past rather than trying to jump boldly into the future. I was now in my forties, and was never, at any age in my life, going to be able to do anything like what Bowie does. I thought I should let the island sink and go look for a new one.

And then my wife reminded me that this was grief talking. I had become so preoccupied with endings that I’d forgotten to appreciate the process. The point of making music, after all, is just to do it, for fun and excitement and self-expression, regardless of the results. I had forgotten that the first single Swimmer One ever released was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, and that we meant it.

There is another way of looking at Stephen White’s story, after all – not as tragedy but as triumph. In the end he may not have been able to hold back the tides, but for a while he did. Yes, his battle against nature was doomed to failure, but so is everybody’s. All of our islands will sink, even David Bowie’s.

One of the things that was so shocking about Bowie’s death is that it seemed impossible, somehow; he was such a force of nature. And yet what is so striking about the way he died is the way he turned even that into art – and into something new, rather than something that dwelled on the past. For that final year, his illness appeared to be the focus of his work and, as it turned out, it was the best work he’d done in years. The Blackstar album, those extraordinary final videos, his musical… all appeared to be ways to process what was happening to him in that moment, even if there appears to be some disagreement over how much of a farewell it actually was. Once he was done, though, he was gone – dead two days after the release of Blackstar. And once he was gone, he was done  – there would be no funeral, the cremation would happen without any ceremony. He seemed to understand, and accept, that certain things are out of your control, so had no interest in engaging with those things. Instead he focused on what he could control. And he did it magnificently, theatrically, and poignantly. Right until the end he was living, and creating, absolutely in the present. Until there was no present left for him to live in.

If I’d been the toast of London I would still be old,
and if I’d been the king of New York I would still be old.
In the end we’re all just trying to keep out the cold.

Not that I would dare to compare myself to Bowie, but the title track of The Winter of 88 feels like a farewell from Seafieldroad. It’s a song celebrating the small impacts we all have on the world, and how we should celebrate these rather than linger on the impact we don’t have – on all the things we can’t control. It is, among other things, a farewell to the idea that my impact on the world of music will be anything more than a pebble in an ocean. But I also don’t want to make music like that anymore.

In seven years I will be the age Bowie was when I first became a proper fan. In lots of ways I feel like I have already stepped into my dad’s shoes; two years after his death I think I have reached the final stage of grief – acceptance. But as is the case for so many people, the death of Bowie stirred up lots of old feelings again. If I’d been in an earlier stage of grief, shellshocked and irrational, I might have felt drained and depressed by it, intimidated by it, weirdly envious of Bowie’s perfectly choreographed exit vs my cack-handed failure even to get my mum to my dad’s bedside in time for his. I would, in other words, have been a basket case. Instead, though, Bowie’s death has given a new urgency to how I feel about life, and also how I feel about music. In short, if I’m ever going to make more music, it needs to be music that’s not about the future, or the past, but the present. I guess I’ll find out whether I’m capable of that in due course.

Let that loose end go.
Find a new knot to tie,
to tie him to you,
before he unravels and disappears.

When I began writing this it was late at night in my parents’ living room. I was visiting with my children, asleep upstairs in what used to be my bedroom. And I realised that, while I could have sat anywhere in this empty room, I chose to sit in what used to be my dad’s place on the sofa.

All these islands will sink,
All these houses will fall,
We’ll build new homes anyway.

Where is David Bowie in this picture? High above, obviously, a starman in the sky, the man who fell from Earth.

Down below, the Earth’s crust is slowly moving, imperceptibly, over hundreds of years.

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(Should you be at all interested, you can download all three Seafieldroad albums, and all those teenage demos, for free via Bandcamp.)

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