Down to a sunless sea: memories of my dad

I’m going to be releasing a new piece every Thursday for at least 8 weeks. General content note: death, dementia, old age, mental health issues

Dementia’s broken sky (Dad in his own words) by my brother Tony Pickering whose art you can find here.

Documenting

My dad was 58 when I was born, and retired before my understanding of the world kicked in. I never knew him as someone with the official title of “Documentary Maker”, but that is what he was before I was born.

I have documented his life in a series of interviews over the last six years. During that time, he has finally started the ultimate transition we all go through from life to death, and so I have also found myself documenting the physical and mental effects of old age and dementia.

I began documenting my dad in 2011, and I don’t sign off the opinions or statements of that past version of me.

A document is a piece of evidence; a record; a proof of something. By this definition, we are all living documents, documents that may or may not be lost to history. What parts of us are recorded? What parts of us are seen?

These days, I’m surprised to find that Documentary Maker is something you could call me. It wasn’t something I dreamed of doing as a child, but I find myself with a similar resume to my father. He made documentary films for the coal board; I make documentary podcasts for a social enterprise. Like him, I am trying to find the balance between following someone else’s brief and making art that resonates with me and my values.

To be someone who documents something is to be someone who decides what to record and what documents are worth sharing, and to create a narrative that makes sense from often conflicting and contradictory sources.

We both became Documentary Makers by accident. Our passion and instincts are for writing and creating. We have both worked at a level where it is hard to combine craft with art, often making other people’s messages rather than expressing our own. To make money — even small amounts of money that don’t fully cover the rent — we have to do things that distract us from who we are and take some of the energy we might have used to make other things.

The word “document” derives from the latin docére which means teach. So Documentary Makers are teachers, and like all teachers they communicate ideas, and ideas are not neutral and ideology-less, they are framed by the society that surrounds them and from the people who impart them.

I grew up immersed in fiction, drama, poetry and polemics. I was rarely interested in myself, at least in a non-fictional way. I knew my father as a writer who wrote fiction, first on a typewriter, later on a computer. That set some of the blueprint for what I was interested in and what I would come to see myself as. I was a writer, like my father. 
 
In my mid-twenties I found myself standing on a stage telling an audience a true story about my life.

My dad was a character in that story. It was perhaps the first time I had presented my life and my dad’s life to an audience. Something clicked, and from then on, I began to look at my life as material that could be presented directly, not filtered through fiction or drama. Like many people coming to true storytelling, I hadn’t realised that my life could be interesting to other people, that my normal was abnormal and interesting to others. This also coincided with me revaluating my past and my self. I wanted to learn to be a better person; I wanted to make sense of my past; and I wanted to create a record of the process of changing. I began to make a podcast in which I talked and listened to people I know/knew about who they are and what they feel and think. After doing the show for a little while, I came to see it as an autobiography through conversation. It’s not just autobiography: it’s a biography of my guests, and my dad has been the most frequent guest that I’ve had, so it’s a document of his life too.

My dad made his first documentary during World War Two. He directed a piece of public information propaganda encouraging people to make do and mend.

Shortly after that he went off to war. When he came back, he reconnected with his documentary colleagues and began his career as a Documentary Maker. He also documented the family in various ways, and by the time I was born, he was taking lots of photos and recording occasional audio of us on a cassette tape. By my teens, he was shooting videos of family occasions. His professional documentaries were things of the past but recording and presenting reality was something that he absolutely still had near the centre of his life.

Around the same time that I began to get involved in True Storytelling, my dad also found himself on a stage talking about himself. The stage in question was at the British Film Institute, where my dad was interviewed about his documentary work. It was an interesting time for me, as suddenly my vague idea of what he had done before I had been alive was clear to me. The BFI commissioned a whole series of events, DVD box sets and publications focusing on the public information films that people like my dad had made. Suddenly, very late in his life, he was receiving recognition for his work; he was having chapters of books written about him; he was being interviewed about his life; and having thought he would not be recorded in the wider documents of history, he suddenly found himself seen, listened to and celebrated.

From the point of view of someone who has also tried to document his life, I’m very glad that happened, not just because it was a great time for him, but also because the one area of his history I feel I haven’t managed to capture coherently on my show is his working life. By the time I sat down to record with him on that topic, his ability to recall it and retell it was reduced, and it became a document more of his current experience of dementia than a coherent and comprehensive record.

We record our lives and the lives of others, using our memory and our technology. We choose what to record, how we record it and how we present it, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously. We don’t always fully choose because we can only work with what we have; sometimes our choices are more restricted than others. We are all documents; we are all documenters; we are all Documentary Makers.

My dad is currently 93. He is a different dad to the one I knew as a child, and a different person to the one I have had a long and close friendship with. He is close to death, but he has also lived much longer than I’d ever hoped or expected. Since these are close to his final days, and since I find it hard not to think about him, I thought I would document our relationship. This document is told from my perspective, and so is probably more about me than it is about him, and it generally won’t focus on the life he had before I knew him. I’ve recorded so much of that already in his own words. This is not a historic or legal document. This is a document of love.

(It is also an introduction to a collection of essays that I will be releasing here on medium weekly over the next few months.)

Read part 2 here:

If you want to support me to make more work you can pre-order my book or sign up to The Family Tree Patreon. If you want to know more about me and what I do, have a look at my website: davepickeringstoryteller.co.uk

Thanks to J Adamthwaite who edited these pieces for punctuation/grammar and provided notes and support.