I wrote the first draft of this story on a beautiful Sunday last summer. I poured a full first draft onto the page without really thinking, and, naturally, it was a mess. I stopped for a mental reset, made cup of coffee number four, and realised it was Father’s Day.
The truth is, I can never remember when Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is. Maybe it’s one of the casualties of growing up in two countries. You develop zero built-in understanding of national holidays. And it doesn’t help if your parents are so committed to rejecting social norms that they actively give up on the two days a year that are, in theory, all about them. But even though my folks didn’t acknowledge the sacred or social aspects of Easter or Shrove Tuesday, they were practical enough to at least involve the food. We always had some kind of pre-hibernation winter feast in lieu of a Christmas dinner and, when your mom is from Holland, every Tuesday is empowered to be pancake Tuesday. So, in honour of that practicality, I’d like to dedicate this story to my parents.
They are both, in their own ways, story people. My mom is a radio DJ and my dad is a musician, and I’ve inherited this idea from them that music is where human beings find their voice for the stories we don’t know how to tell. Mind you, they also both love telling stories. Once, my Dad performed in a small village and the sound failed mid-set. The sound! So, naturally, he kept people entertained with a made-up history of the town — somehow, without offending any of the locals...
What I’m about to tell you is a story about stories. It’s also a story about family, which is one of the reasons I’ve never told it to anyone before. Usually, when I talk about my family in detail, I talk about the big deals — unusual things like being homeschooled in America, or broken things like… being homeschooled in America.
I think I do this because they are interesting and entertaining things to talk about, but also because I like to understand my own story by telling people I trust about the parts that I can’t make sense of.
They become mirrors of my experience. We exchange tales about life and family. We react to what we’re hearing and share our understanding. Hopefully we come away with perspective, knowing each other and even knowing ourselves a little bit better.
When I was invited to contribute a story to OneTrackMinds I searched and searched for the right one. I looked at all my big deals, at all the crises, all the weirdness. Music illuminates every part of my life, but nothing called out to me, none of my usual stories felt right. When I finally landed on this story, it was something I hadn’t thought about for years, something clear but not present. Telling you this is a selfish exercise, really, because if I’m lucky it will help me better understand an experience I’ve never shared.
When I was eight years old, living a few hours from here in a city called Bath, I was vaguely aware that my parents were working very hard on immigration paperwork. Although I didn’t know the details, I did know that the Nintendo 64 my brother and I loved would not follow us to the new country. I knew that having my own room was a temporary luxury and wouldn’t make it across the ocean. I did not know that my voice, mannerisms, even my sense of humour were about to change profoundly, and by the time I’d reach the age of 27 I’d sound like a Canadian raised on Radio 4. For the record, I was born in Amsterdam and spent my first nine years in Britain and my second nine in the United States. And I do like Radio 4. I’ve been back in the UK for nearly a decade now. But when people ask me “So, like, are you Dutch or American or British or what?” all I can think to say is “Yes”. They’re all home to me in some special way.
To eight-year-old me, though, Britain was home. I had the clipped English accent to prove it, and a bossy attitude that would set me up for both conflict and success in the United States. My parents were working incredibly hard to get us green cards. It’s not an easy process, especially for a pack of artists. At the time, some family friends were visiting from the US, and from them I was learning all kinds of wonderful myths about how flawless America was — and some truths about its natural beauty, history, culture. I was especially excited about learning the swear words. Even so, underneath the allure of a perfect new home, I felt a compulsion that persisted throughout my time there. It was a conditional invitation: “Welcome,” it said, “This is your home now. You’re American. You speak American.” And so, when we moved, that’s what I did, and for the most part I assimilated successfully into our tiny corner of the rural West. Now I had the rounded accent, the cowboy boots, and an astonishing tolerance for canned pork and beans.
For the most part, I willingly let go of my ties to home and embraced my new identity. Later, when we were teens, my Dad introduced my brother and me to football — proper football. We watched Premier League matches aired on US TV several hours late, meaning we had to studiously ignore the news to avoid results spoilers.
Mostly, though, from the age of nine I watched basketball, and only basketball. I learned American history and only American history. And in all my time in the States, there was really only one thing — one consistent thread — that reminded me of my roots. It was music, and specifically some music that became imbued with powerful significance when I was eight years old.
This was about a year before the move, and the precipice we were standing on felt especially real for some reason, like the chasm beyond it spanned the whole Atlantic Ocean.
In my memory, our home in Bath was beautiful in the same way that cancelled TV shows are classic. We left before it could become anything other than perfect.
One day, it must have been late spring or early summer, my dad went away for several weeks. He went to write and record music in his favourite environment — the middle of nowhere, in the Highlands — so my mom, my brother and I went away as well, to the middle of nowhere in rural Devon. We were at some residential event full of grown-ups, and we were pretty much the only kids there.
We could feel the ground shifting beneath us. So we kept to ourselves, to a space we could control. Our imaginary worlds were pretty well-developed thanks to a few years of very limited TV, so we found a bank of earth at the side of a meadow and carved a map into it, a cutaway of rooms hosting characters made of leaves and twigs. We charted stories I can’t remember but they probably involved power struggles between my brother’s characters and mine. His creations wore black armour, came from a volcanic mountain range, and their national animal was the bat. They were the morally grey anti-heroes to my morally righteous utopians. We wore blue and white, we lived in cities made of ice, and our national animal was, of course, the ferocious battle unicorn. I was the warrior princess — basically Elsa, before Frozen was cool.
My parents were at least partly responsible for this behaviour, always reading poetry, short stories, long stories. In fact one of my earliest memories is of my mom sitting in a rocking chair - because of course we had a rocking chair - reading me stories when I was very, very small.
In my memory, the rocking chair is enormous, and the stories take up the whole room.
My dad, being a songwriter and incorrigible performer, made up his own stories. They were called “Thundersword and Thundershield”. They were about a brother and sister — a dynamic duo, an alternate-universe take on my brother and I where instead of playing in the mud, we fought against an invading force of 2nd-Century Roman legions. Thundersword was a fusion of my little brother and a young King Arthur, and Thundershield was inspired by the Celtic chieftess Boudicca, made blonde in my image. Their adventures were fictional and fantastic, starring a band of misfit freedom fighters working to overthrow the very Pythonesque Roman invaders, backed up by a little magic and mysticism. Thundersword and Thundershield always led the charge.
He had his own reasons for telling us these stories and I know the important ones. The first was that he was away a lot, living the life of a modern day bard as a musician, and my mom, in a stroke of genius, saw an opportunity for us to stay in touch via a long, multi-chapter story. We were a little young for The Lord of the Rings, so he improvised.
Another reason had to do with identity. My dad has always felt more at home in a tent in the wilderness than in the manicured Surrey suburbs where he grew up, and he wanted us to have a sense of “home” that was more than just the Queen’s England. Rather than stately houses and pathological politeness, Britain to him meant wilderness, deep cultural roots much older than feudalism, a bastion of free thought and rebellious artists. He was in love with the romantic poets and stories of the Celts, of ancient chiefs and torcs and woad war paint and the kind of revolutionary soul that we don’t often associate with historical or modern Britain. Finding very little of that spirit in English tradition, he fell in love with the places where it was still a part of their identity — especially Scotland. This was the 90s, which, among other things, was the golden age of Enya and Clannad, and it’s why throwback playlists on Spotify never feel quite right to me. My parents loved new-age and world music, and at the time, Bath was saturated in both — and our perfect house was saturated in the sounds of Afro-Celt Sound System, Capercaillie, and Davy Spillane.
A final reason for my dad’s stories was to give both my brother and I an image of human experience that featured strong women and men fighting side by side, to balance out the sexism we were exposed to in wider society. Eventually, years later, he would read the Lord of the Rings to us in the months before the Return of the King came out in cinemas. And as he read, my dad live-edited the text to make the story less sexist.
It took me a re-read in my late teens to realise that, canonically speaking, Eowyn sacrifices her independence for Faramir’s love. The way I’d heard it, she kept her sword and her status and she got the guy…
Something I didn’t understand or appreciate — at least until much, much later — was that my dad’s adventures were entirely made up on the fly. This is amazing on a variety of levels, but it unfortunately meant that not only were they not recorded anywhere, but if he wasn’t around, there would be no stories. And, when I was eight, distracting myself in a muddy bank in Devon, that is exactly what was happening. It was, from my perspective, disastrous timing. We were on the cusp of hearing about a critical battle, our heroes massively outnumbered by the Romans, and suddenly off went my Dad to the wilds of Scotland to do his bardic thing. This also wasn’t unusual, but the timing was annoying and, as the loudest member of his story’s 2-person fan club, I was appalled at the prospect of waiting for a new chapter.
In retrospect, my jumbled-up emotions about the story were caused by a lot more than a brief mid-season break. Change was in the air. Our move across the Atlantic was on the horizon, and around me were people from all over the world, and the Americans were the loudest, and they were telling us all about our new lives in the new country we would — we must — call home.
And then a package arrived.
In the package was a cassette tape with two sides, loaded with story made up on the fly and recorded 400 miles north of us. I was excited, but also skeptical, because when he’s performing my dad moves constantly, animated by the story he’s telling and channelling the characters and the mood all at once. He even does voices. And he did a whole facial expression thing when performing the Romans and I really didn’t think the comedy would translate without a visual. Surely, this wouldn’t work without a human being there to give it that something, like drama, or a heart, or a soul.
My mom pressed play, and there was my dad’s voice — and something else. Music, and definitely not my dad’s music or anything else I’d heard. It beckoned me in and twirled us across 400 miles of rooftops, mountains, industrial estates, all the way to the wildest places in the British Isles. It threw me into an inter-dimensional gateway almost 2000 years into the past, laterally across reality to the pocket of improvised world my dad wove with words. I felt so strongly, I connected to the words and sunk into the story in a way I’d never done before. I cascaded through emotions, from the euphoric opening track to the death scene. And yes, there was a death scene. And I think if my dad could have known how much that scene would make me cry thanks to a heartbreakingly sad soundtrack, he would never have included it.
As with most things from that year, the story is hazy but the feelings are crystal clear. I don’t remember most details of my own story that year either, but I do remember feelings and snapshots. It’s possible that had that tape not arrived, the summer would have been swallowed up by the chaos of pre-immigration anxiety and I wouldn’t have remembered today that there were stories at all. One of my least favourite idioms is “hindsight is 20/20”, because I don’t really remember most of my 8-year-old self. I can’t even do the accent properly anymore. Hindsight gets blurrier the further back I go and, far enough down the line, reality seems even more tenuous than it did when I was eight. But after the move, when I was old enough to discover my own tastes in music, I came back to this album and I felt everything. I still do.
My dad’s stories gave me all kinds of complexes. I love military history, Celtic imagery and music, I have a thing for strong independent women.
More than anything I’m in love with stories, with the fact that every time we experience one, a whole new universe exists for the briefest moment.
Our reality and the storyteller’s collide, and feelings ensue, and if that’s not the closest we can get to visiting another dimension I don’t know what is. Music has these unbelievable powers over our hearts and minds, and it can make those dimensions vibrant in indescribable ways.
For a long time I wanted to make music for a living, and I thought that my dad’s tapes had taught me about the importance of soundtracks, but they were more than that. I make stories for a living now and I realise that they taught me about storytelling, in all its forms. They taught me to recognise those parallel worlds and to appreciate how fleeting they can be. And they taught me a secret: if you have the right key, those brief universes are places you can go back to.
The stories my dad told were a miniature of home, a snow-globe, an anchor for a kid on the precipice of a new home and a new identity. The song that changed my life is my key to that place. It’s by a Scottish musician called Dougie MacLean, and before you play it, I want to invite you into that tiny universe.
Put yourself at just over 4 feet tall, 8 years old, watching the wheels in a cassette like they’re the eyes of a storyteller…
This is called Perthshire Amber.
Rosa Dachtler is a a narrative designer with a background in audio design.