History is Yesterday

A Conversation with Alan Read


Alan Read’s 90th birthday is already history, because “History is yesterday.” And as Egremont’s most distinguished historian Alan has told of all our yesterdays in his books in which Ronnie Looney and Dodger Pattinson rub shoulders with William le Meschines and Richard de Lucy.

But the privilege of an afternoon spent talking to him revealed far more than the orderly harvesting of knowledge that his books reveal. His mind worked backwards and forwards as he reflected on “so many things that can inspire you” using “words to paint pictures.”

“Observe!” his schoolmaster, Mr Dixon, had told him at Beckermet School, expecting him to remember minute details from his walk to school that morning, and that power of observation so remorselessly trained in him is united with an impressive ability to connect. Observing beach shingle as United Utilities dug out the drains a few years ago reminded him that Egremont was once on an estuary and stirred his wonder at the mutability of life. Perhaps that wonder drew him out of his trade as a wheelwright into his calling as an undertaker, for it is a calling, he insists. It involves being attentive to people in sorrow as they are becalmed in the doldrums of bereavement. “If there is something in your mind, write it down,” he used to urge people who could not sleep, and he followed his own counsel when he lost his dear wife Josie after 48 years of marriage. His certainty of eternity beyond time is shown again and again in his poetry, which he judges too personal to publish. It is there both in his sense of loss and in his sensitivity to joy: of a 93 year old friend seeing her son again after many years, and of a nameless father he observed carrying his young daughter laughing across the sands. It was a revelation to see his sculpture in wood which he created out of a piece of yew that had been struck by lightning. He did not impose a fancy of his own in his carving but drew out the shape he found existing naturally in the wood, and the qualities of openness of the whole structure, the razor sharp edges and the aspiration with which it reaches upwards convinced him that he must call it Life. He rightly judges it to be beyond value, having offended a very rich woman by telling her that she had not enough money to buy it. What an amazing attitude for a businessman to take, but Alan is no ordinary businessman.

On his own artistic sensitivity is founded deep respect for the great sculptor, Paul Bainbridge, for whom he sat as a model in Lowes Court Gallery in June 2006. He marvelled at his power to conjure life out of clay, and show him himself as others see him. The bust indeed lifts him out of time, accurately observing a man then 84 years old but capturing also the unquenchable vitality that makes a conversation with him so inspiring.

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