The Cosmonaut’s Glove
This is one of my favourite photos of my dad. He’s the white haired man in the smart jacket in the front row, standing next to my mum and my twin brother. Kenyatta Cheese is kneeling on stage, at the beginning of his talk at The Story conference in 2014. He had just walked onto the stage and asked the audience to pretend they were giving him a rapturous ovation, so that Meg Pickard, the host that year, could take a photo in case his talk didn’t go well. He needn’t have worried.
It’s not the best picture of my dad, but I like it because he’s there, having a great time, at an event I organised, and that means so much to me. This was was the fifth time I’d run The Story, but my parents had only been coming for a couple of years. When they first said they wanted to come, I was filled with a mixture of dread and anxiety, but I couldn’t work out why.
I think I understand why I was anxious now. I was worried that my parents wouldn’t like, or understand, what I was trying to do with The Story. And that would mean they wouldn’t understand what I’d been doing in my work and career for the previous 20 years, and how much I owed them for all of it.
My father died a few weeks ago, and amongst the sadness and grief, I’m pleased that I had the chance to say thanks to him for everything he did as a father. This chance came, at least in part, because of a glove from a cosmonaut’s space suit.
My dad was born on March 8th, 1941, during an air-raid, on the northern outskirts of Greater London. His childhood was spent in the aftermath of the Second World War, playing with shells and home-made explosives in gravel pits and bombed out houses. Like a lot of working-class kids at the time, his education ended at 14, and he worked as a carpenter for the next 50 years of his life.
After he retired, he told me that he had been really interested in science, but the careers advisor took one look at his grades, told him he didn’t have the maths, and sent him to work on the building sites instead. He ended up as a very good carpenter, training up and working with my elder brother for the last part of his working life, but it wasn’t something he yearned to do.
Although he didn’t get a chance to go to college or university, he remained fascinated with science, and particularly astronomy and space travel, for the rest of his life. He passed his curiosity on to us, buying an aptly-titled part-work encyclopaedia called ‘The Joy of Knowledge’ so he could help us with our homework.
I remember him teaching us how to use these books and the local library to research interesting facts and discover things. Much later, when I was old enough to appreciate what he’d done as a dad, I told him this was a much more valuable lesson than just telling us facts — as the saying goes, ‘a child is not a cup to be filled, but a spark to be lit’. He said that he wasn’t thinking like that at all — our schoolwork had quickly exhausted his formal education, so he had to help us find the answers as he didn’t know them himself.
Many parents in his situation would have had too much ego, or embarrassment, to admit they didn’t know or understand the things their kids were learning in school, or would have researched it and then claimed the knowledge as their own. My dad didn’t just show us how to find things out that we didn’t know, he also taught us that admitting we don’t know something is the first step to learning. For him, knowledge wasn’t something you possessed, it was something you shared.
The anxiety I had when my parents started coming to The Story only lasted a few years. They first came in 2012, when the line up included artists, politicians, avant-garde musicians, internet researchers, magicians and indie magazine publishers. I looked at the line-up and wondered what they’d make of any of it, as it seemed such a, well, middle-class confection, a product of my career bouncing around between the arts sector and senior management jobs at the BBC and Channel 4. My parents had never understood my job, especially the digital side of it, so how could they understand The Story?
There’s a great book by Lynsey Hanley (who spoke at The Story a few years later) called Respectable. It’s about her own experience of social mobility, and how this leaves you stranded between two worlds that you don’t quite fit into — the working class experience of your parents, and the middle-class experience of your new, upwardly mobile, working life. To gain acceptance, Hanley writes, working class kids must “reject the values of their parents and community if they are ever to hope to be a part of society”. My anxiety was exactly this — surely my parents were from a different world, one that I’d left behind when I went away to Art School at the age of 18?
Before their first visit to The Story, my mum asked who was speaking, and I ummed and ahhed, mentioned a few names, and tried to create a space for disappointment by telling them they probably wouldn’t enjoy it. I was being an idiot. Looking back, there was so much in The Story that was directly influenced by my parents, and the childhood they gave me.
Just in that one year, Jeremy Deller talked about his work The Battle of Orgreave, a restaging of the 1980s battles between striking miners and the police, something I remember reading about with my dad, who was a foreman on his building site, in the Daily Mirror. Karen Lubbock talked about her self-published zine ‘Karen’ — a celebration of the ordinary details of working class lives that so resembled our own. Tom Watson MP talked about his experience of battling with Rupert Murdoch and News Corp over the Hackgate controversy. And Scott Burnham showed his democratic, participatory urban artworks installed in the public spaces of Amsterdam.
Looking at the event through my parents’ eyes for the first time, I realised how much they had shaped my values, and the stories I wanted to discover and celebrate. Of course they’d enjoy the event. Although I might have crossed the class divide, my values and perspective on the world was still fundamentally theirs.
Since 2012, I have curated The Story partly through my parents’ eyes. I’ve tried to create a space that is accessible, and enjoyable, for anyone, whether you are a retired builder, an artist, or a creative director in an advertising company. I started the event because I hated feeling like I didn’t belong at cliquey events that were targeted at just one group — people who work in television, film, digital or advertising, for example — when my own career had always been located in the gaps in-between.
But maybe The Story isn’t just about blurring the boundaries between those industry cliques, but also between my childhood and adult worlds, between my life and my parents’. The Story was a small attempt to smooth over a different kind of in-between-ness — the in-between-ness of social mobility that Lynsey Hanley describes so vividly in her book. Instead of leaving them behind, every time they turned up to The Story it felt like I was drawing them closer into my world, planting the ladder I’d climbed up even more firmly into the ground.
Four years later, at The Story in 2016, I had the chance to do something that would properly say thank you to my dad. I’d recently joined the board of The British Science Association, and at their annual festival in Bradford I saw a fantastic talk from Dallas Campbell about the evolution of the space suit. Best of all, he brought along an actual space suit worn by a cosmonaut on a visit to the International Space Station. At the time, I’d really wished my dad was with me watching the talk, so I used my newly-minted social status as a BSA board member to get Dallas’ contact details, and invited him to talk at The Story the following February.
I programmed Dallas after lunch, so he had time to set up the space suit on stage, and during the lunch break, introduced him to my dad, who had taken his usual seat in the front row. Dallas graciously answered a few questions from him, recognising him as someone with a similar passion for everything to do with space travel.
After his talk, Dallas invited the audience to come up and have a look at the space suit. I’d asked Dallas to make sure my dad got a chance to actually touch the suit, and I saw my dad carefully take the glove and, with Dallas’ encouragement, place his huge labourers’ hand inside. My dad couldn’t go into space, but here was the next best thing- to actually touch something that had.
That was the last The Story my dad could attend. The following year he was too ill with a stomach pain that we later found out was prostate cancer. This year he couldn’t make it as he was in hospital, the cancer slowly progressing inside him.
I often wonder if my dad could have had a career as a scientist. If he hadn’t been told at 14 that he ‘didn’t have the maths’, who knows what he could have done. Instead, like many parents, he worked hard to make sure that his sons had the chances that he didn’t have, and he instilled in us a curiosity and passion for knowledge that sent us much further than he could have ever imagined.
The problem with social mobility is that sometimes the gap between the life you came from and the life you now lead seems unimaginably huge, and it’s hard to reconcile this into a coherent identity. But sometimes, as when I saw my dad with the cosmonaut’s glove, that distance collapses, even if just for a moment.
My dad taught me that the best thing you can do for your children is not to fill them, like cups, with knowledge, but to help light their spark, so that they might fly to worlds you could never imagine. Then, if you’re lucky, they can return and share those worlds with you. I’m glad I got the chance to do that with him. I hope I’m lucky enough to see my daughters do the same. Thanks dad.