Sunday, 25 November 2012

My Grandfather's Axe

There is a scene in the work of the great Terry Pratchett’s book The Fifth Elephant where the Low King of the Dwarves is explaining about the importance of having something to pass on. The King explains that his axe has been in his family for many generations, but at various intervals in history, the weapon has been modified with new blades, handles and ornamentation so much so that no part of the original axe remains... yet the axe is still the same axe that has been handed down through 14 generations.

As we’ve moved into the new house and started our family I’ve been acquiring and inventorying things that I’ll be putting to good use. I guess these things can be categorised into tangible and intangible goods; I’ve got the dining room table that went from my grandfather to my parents, back to my grandfather, to the local church and finally back to me; when moving it in the other day I found the sticker that a removal company fixed to the base in the 60’s on the underside bearing my maternal grandfather’s surname “Gribben” in neat biro lettering. The tablecloth we’ve been given to go with it was a wedding present to my mother. Perhaps most touching though (and the items that put me in mind of the Pratchett quote) are the mismatched set of kitchen supplies and utensils that my father has put together for me. Dad is a chef, and nestled in there is a history of his career; an army issue cook’s knife from his days in uniform, and other items acquired along the way. Most impressive, provided it is used sensibly, is a giant heavy long bladed cook’s knife from “before he joined the army”, the blade is well over a foot long and it is probably as close as this family would come to a heraldic weapon. My dad would dismiss it as “just a big knife”, but I feel that the sword hung on the wall of some lofty and ancient family’s manor also started out as “just a big knife” before whichever battle in which it was deployed to prune the family trees of other nobles. I’m proud of it because I know the history, even if it wasn’t one of the big knives at Bosworth Field.

After the physical things come the intangible things we inherit. With the kitchen equipment comes a knowledge of how to use it after years spent under the whithering and somewhat sarcastic tutelage of my dad; yet I’m not the chef, I’m just a reasonable cook. Similarly there’s the love of languages and travel together with a fairly common sense approach to the international scene gleaned from Granddad Gribben that seems to be creating an increasingly globally mobile and internationalised family; yet I’m no linguist, I’m just someone with a knack for languages.

Where does that leave us as dads? What is our “Grandfather’s Axe”? It would be a mistake to try and hoist the tangible stuff we’ve surrounded ourselves with on our kids if they don’t want it. For many years I lived out of a suitcase and giving too many things too soon would prevent my kids from seeing the world. It also can’t be the core of our professional beings; different people are capable of very different things, and take quite different routes through life even when they share chunks of DNA.

Instead I think it’s the attitudes that are important and that we can pass on. I’d like to think that my boy will get the family’s attitude to fair play and the raucous sense of humour. I’d like him to be ambitious and to love learning in whatever form it might take. I’d also like him to love food and D.I.Y. like me and his Granddad, try to understand and lead others like his mum, nurture and care like his Granny, always be warm and positive like my Grandma Peck, love languages and differences and seek out peace and happiness for all and adventure for himself wherever he might find it. If I can get him to do that, no matter what he owns and what he does, then far into the future being a member of this family will mean as much to my descendants as it does to me. That identity and security then is my “Grandfather’s Axe”. I believe the motto of Nottingham, my home city, says it best “Vivit post funera virtus” - "Virtue Survives Death" for those non-Latin speakers out there.


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