How I came to inhabit this body

Most days, I walk down the Ledborough Road, to observe in passing the extraordinary variety of human life-forms on display. Suddenly the “brotherhood of all mankind” comes into my head. As usual, I’m glad to be me, thankful indeed. But then I reflect that my birth was no more of my choosing than theirs was to them. I don’t believe in karma and past lives, not even the separation of body and soul; but it does seem to us, or perhaps it’s embedded in our language, that a soul is planted into a foetus some time between conception and taking our first breath. So this soul which calls itself “I” could be any of these people. As a thought experiment, I briefly tried to imagine being one of the persons I passed. Sometimes I thought it could work for a second or two, flying on a momentary attraction or fellow-feeling. But the main thing  I got from it was a conviction that none of us can claim credit or discredit for being what we are. We didn’t choose this particular body and we’re not self-made.Thus I became ready to take a dispassionate look at the two parents whose mixed DNA made me and set me off on a path that has ended up here.

Of my father I know little, except that he was born in Perth, Australia. If he’s still alive, he’s 91 or 92. I never heard about him from my mother, and was 49 when I first learned of his existence.   He wasn’t around, we were never introduced, because not long after begetting me, he reached his eighteenth birthday. A real man would not hang around taking his turn changing diapers. He would enlist, join a troopship bound for the jungles where the warriors of Nippon must be vanquished for the liberation of South-east Asia and the world. And so he did, not returning till months after the atomic bombs and the Emperor’s surrender. Whereupon he did the decent thing and proposed marriage to my newly-widowed mother, whose husband did not survive hostilities.She spurned him and brought me from Perth to England and reunion with her parents, till she thought of what to do next.

My father’s name is Harold Laurence Amey. His roofing company, Larry Amey & Associates, is still listed at the address where I went to meet him 20 years ago; I guess nobody updates trade websites unless somebody asks. The last time I sent a card, it came back months later with “unknown” scrawled across it. Well, at least we met; and I once had a small photo, a mugshot from when he was 17. One glance revealed the  obvious likeness, evidence enough. My elder children changed their surnames to Amey, but he wasn’t pleased, said they should have asked his permission first.

Of my mother’s family, I know a good deal, not just those members I met in the flesh, but also those of earlier generations, thanks to an interest they’ve shown in genealogy. The picture below, taken in 1913, shows my mother shortly before her 4th birthday, sitting on my grandmother’s knee, next to my grandfather Vincent in the straw hat.

click on the picture for a version which allows you to click on the faces or hover over them for more information (opens in a new tab)

The family tree shown below was initially sketched by my sister, out of a special interest in the Elphinstone lineage; this being somewhat illustrious, and well-documented in Wikipedia. The dotted line leading to my name, bottom left, indicates I was not the offspring of either of my mother’s two listed husbands, nor indeed her third, who isn’t shown, though he was my stepfather from 1954 till his death.

Click on the diagram for a version which allows you to click on the entries in violet for more information (opens in a new tab)

My grandfather Vincent Sumner Ward used to have a lineage chart showing direct descent from John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1848 till his death in 1862. I’ve never felt any sense of kinship with him or what he stood for.

Of all my forebears, the one who interests me is my mother’s mother’s father—one of my four great-grandfathers. It may be impossible now to discover more about him than the little I’ve jotted below:

Rev. Joseph Sanger-Davies
  • Rev. Joseph Sanger Davies
  • b. 1849 Wales to Thomas Whicker Davies of Haverfordwest Pembrokeshire & Hannah Tanner Sanger of Salisbury Wiltshire.
  • d. 1900 in Cannes
  • Educated at Queens College, Oxford *
  • Married to Harriet Anna Turner in 1881
  • Father of eight children [shown in photo above]
  • Held English Chaplaincy in Italy and the Tyrol
  • Member of the Alpine Club
  • Author of Dolomite Strongholds: the last untrodden Dolomite peaks (George Bell & Sons, 1894)

I have a first edition of this book, passed down through the family. It must have been his own copy, for it contains between its leaves some of his line-drawings on flimsy paper. I’ve reproduced them on an earlier post, here. Long out of copyright, it’s currently available in six print editions, in various qualities of facsimile, precious alike to rock climbers today and connoisseurs of high Victorian prose of the best kind.

I didn’t intend this post to be about me as I am today, merely a short essay, such as anyone might submit if the topic set was “How I came to inhabit this body”. We each have had two parents, just write down what you know or don’t know about them, where they came from, how they met. That was the straightforward intent, till unconscious forces got in on the act. It happened this way. Sleep deserted me at 4am this morning, so I lay awake, had the idea for this post, started to plan its content, till at some point I drifted back into sleep and I had a dream.

I’d been accepted for some Civil Service or academic  post, it wasn’t clear. A colleague from a different department invited me for a chat, a sort of all-day induction. His company was so easy and pleasant that I felt guilty to be getting paid for such idle fun. Shouldn’t I be sitting at a desk with my head down? He laughed, took me for a walk around the town, no sense of urgency about anything, till we returned to his office for a fine buffet lunch. He said my new boss would be showing up soon, I needed to be briefed in advance. The post was very prestigious. I was to move with my family to Cambridge. I protested: don’t expect me to start a new life at my age! I’m settled. I don’t even want this post, I already have everything I want. Here I’m not answerable, I have freedom of thought: this is my only asset, don’t take that away. Then he delivered the coup de grâce, the killer blow: “You’ll be at Queen’s College! You’re part of the family, it goes back generations, welcome back! We’ll look after everything. There can be no question of refusing. And, now, here is your superior, the College Provost, with three senior colleagues.” Four distinguished-looking persons came in—all women, one in an Indian sari—how disconcerting to be working under them! The Provost said a few words, then they all stood in line waiting to shake my hand, as if this were a long-awaited moment. Gauche and nervous, I muttered that my hands were a little sticky with butter. I looked around wildly for something to wipe them on. They pretended not to notice, waited. All attention was on me.

It was one of those dreams where I’m cornered, and my only escape is to wake up, and learn something I needed to know. As much as I admire the deeds and renown of my shadowy great-grandfather from Queen’s College, when it really comes down to it, I’m my father’s son, a common man, at home on the Ledborough Road, not the ivory towers of Academe.

* I was surprised to check J. Sanger-Davies’ book and rediscover he went to Oxford, unlike the other male relatives in the group photo, who went to Cambridge. Facts never stand in the way of dreams.


16 thoughts on “How I came to inhabit this body

  1. “How I came to inhabit this body”

    “Hmm,” methinks, “this is either going to involve a stork, some birds, some bees, or some very frank language.”

    In all seriousness, though, it’s something I’ve thought of often. If my parents conceived on a different night or even an hour later, would I go back to the great fund of unborn souls and would there be someone else here living my life? And yet this pertinent question seems to devolve into nonsense at the same time. I’m me by virtue of being me. Someone else can’t be me or they’d be someone else. But why am I me and not you? Of her? Or him? Because I’m me and they’re them. Wait, what? But why? Well, everyone comes off the assembly line with a mind — or a soul if you like; I’m not so picky. Somebody had to be you, and it might as well have been you. Yeah, I guess, but … Ummmm???

    At that point, you know, brains … oatmeal … mess.

  2. Thanks Bryan & Kathleen. We stand at the boundary of what we can grasp, & sometimes wonder what may lie beyond.

    And just now, looking down into a basement flat on the West Vale Road, where I’m certain no child lives, I saw a grimacing pumpkin staring back at me carved in the conventional Hallowe’en manner, but it put me in mind of an African mask or a grinning skull. And it suddenly answered my puzzlement as to why Hallowe’en has become more than a childish thing, more like a full-blown festival with rituals and artefacts like Christmas. The latter prompts us to Peace, Goodwill to All Men. But Hallowe’en prompts us to an excited shudder towards what may be unknown, which I guess is more of a feeling than an intellectual speculation. And a set of a symbols for that which may cause us fear, until we tame it, and call it childish, or join in a communal exorcism.

    And so, being human, we try to populate the scary void with reassuring imagery. And perhaps these words are a complete non sequitur, to be trashed later, but let them stay for now. I declare an “Open Mic” session. Come all ye.

  3. I went through a period when I was younger where the possibility of never having been born really bothered me, more than death even, I think. I’m not sure why or what brought it on. It’s one of those cases where you remember having a feeling, but you can’t conjure it up again. You know what I mean?

  4. In general terms yes. I’m wondering whether you had unconsciously linked yourself in empathy with miscarriages or abortions, when you first heard of them?

  5. Actually, after giving it a little thought, I’m not sure why I said that I didn’t know what brought it on. It’s very clear to me, really.

    My mother had a lot of regrets about her marriage to my father, especially after the divorce, as you can imagine. She’s always been chronically depressed to a degree and she was especially so after my dad left. Sometimes she would express these regrets, probably more than she should of, when I was still at a fairly impressionable age. It put me in a strange position, owing my existence to something that my mother considered had ruined her life. Sometimes I would argue this point with her and say, “Well, me and Jimmy wouldn’t be here, then.” She would shrug that off and say that she would have had us with someone else. Then I would tell her that it doesn’t work that way, that our father is part of who we are. It’s not something that you can just take out of the equation. She would have had DIFFERENT children with someone else. And the whole thing would pretty much come to rest on that point until the subject came up again sometime.

    So, I think you’d agree that that was the source of my anxiety. The only mystery is why I thought it was a mystery.

  6. It makes perfect sense to me now though I can’t imagine how it actually felt to you. In my own childhood, there were things missing, for example my idea of a father was a purely imaginary one. Stepfathers did not fill the void at all, especially as I wasn’t an easy child at all & knew that my mother gave them enough trouble without me adding to it. As a small child you adapt to pretty much anything, but you feel vague gaps, that make you different from your peers (obscurely burdened) but you cannot grasp the shape of that gap, or imaginatively fill in what is missing.

    But I get it, that your mother let seep into you the suggestion that you were part of her mistake in marrying your father. Thus there was nothing you could do to stop your own existence being construed as a mistake too, since you worked out that you would not be the same person as that hypothetical child who would have resulted from a better marriage. So there was this inescapable existential “original sin”, nothing to do with your behaviour once born, just the fact that you are there at all. Which is such a terrible hopeless thought and feeling that it has to be suppressed as if it doesn’t belong to you. Better to let it remain a mystery.

    But it isn’t now, you’ve expressed it.

  7. In the beginning there was energy. The energy began to differentiate and organize itself. It became particles which attracted or repealed others. The dynamics of time and space took form. Affinity groups became elements, molecules, amino acids. A twisted strand of chemicals became DNA. A distinctive strand of DNA became my home for a little while. I will leave it in due course without regrets but with gratitude.

    For the time being I live in molecules, in cells, in organs, in a body, in a species, in humanity, in a solar system, in a galaxy, in a universe.

    I didn’t realize I had paraphrased Marriage of Heaven and Hell until it was done.

    PLATE 4
    The voice of the Devil

    All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the
    following Errors.
    1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a
    2. That Energy. calld Evil. is alone from the Body. & that
    Reason. calld Good. is alone from the Soul.
    3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his
    But the following Contraries to these are True
    1 Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is
    a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets
    of Soul in this age
    2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is
    the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
    3 Energy is Eternal Delight

  8. Thanks, Ellie, & you’ve prompted me to quote a more modern author, John o’Donohue, from his Anam Ċara:

    “Your body is your clay home; your body is the only home you have in this universe. It is in and through your body that your soul becomes visible and real for you. Your body is the home of your soul on earth. (pp69-70)

    “The body is a sacrament. . . . A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. . . . You know from your own life that your body rarely lies. Your mind can deceive you and put all kinds of barriers between you and your nature; but your body does not lie. Your body tells you, if you attend to it, how your life is and whether you are living from your soul or from the labyrinths of your negativity.” (pp72-73)

    When I was pointed towards this truth, as reflected in the words italicized above, one day in June 2005, and allowed to see for myself, rather than being preached at, my 30 years’ chronic illness instantly fell away, never to return.

    He also says somewhere, I can’t at present find it, that it is more accurate to say that the body resides within the soul, than the other way round. Or words to that effect.

  9. Is this your missing quote?

    “The old notion of the soul being hidden somewhere deep within the body serves only to intensify the loneliness of the love act as the attempt of two solitudes to bridge their distance. However, when we understand that the body is in the soul, intimacy and union seem unavoidable because the soul as the radiance of the body is already entwined with her lover.”

    John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty, Chapter 7, Attraction: the Eros of Beauty.

    Marvellous evocative and erotic words, I think.

  10. Yes! it is on page 164, in a little section on “the Beauty of Skin”, where he also says:

    The act of love is rich in symbolism and ambivalence. It arises on that temporary, total threshold between solitude and intimacy, skin and soul, feeling and thought, memory and future.

  11. John o’Donohue lives on in his words and in the life that was returned to you through his words. Is it not an act of love that we are entwined by witnessing to the truth that is given to us that it may reach those whom we call strangers.

  12. I somewhat miswrote above, conveying the suggestion that the life was returned to me through his words.

    I’ve corrected my comment to say “When I was pointed towards this truth, as reflected in the words italicized above, one day in June 2005 . . . ”

    The moment of realization occurred during an initial therapeutic session with Dr Alastair Reece, who teaches various techniques but is intuitive enough to be the channel at times for the right word to the right person at the right (receptive) moment.

    This doesn’t alter the truth of what you say, that o’Donohue lives on in his words. And that acts of love are involved in the witnessing, entwining us in indebtedness to one another, and reaching strangers in ways that we may never know.

  13. Queen’s College is in Oxford.
    Queens’ College is in Cambridge.
    What a difference an apostrophe sometimes makes!

  14. I never knew that. I thought I was the only pedant in these parts, now I’m indebted to you, & wish you would declare your identity & state your proof-reading rates!

  15. If I may be pernicketier than thou (more pernickety than thee, if you insist):
    I was about to correct the post as per your guidance, but then I found there was nothing to correct, in that:
    a) I was transcribing what I was told in a dream. In spoken English the position of an apostrophe is not explicit, merely deducible from the context.
    b) I wasn’t told in the dream which university it was, but assumed that it was the same one that Rev. J Sanger-Davies went to, which I later rediscovered was Oxford. So the apostrophe was correct. My assumption that he went to Cambridge was wrong.
    c) Dreams tend to reflect garbled imagination rather than factual reality, as in this case.
    d) When Queens’ College Cambridge was founded, they didn’t use apostrophes, & the current spelling is some new-fangled idea dating from the mid-19th century.

    Nevertheless, I’m still eager to hire your services, leaving me free for more important matters such as putting the world to rights.

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