May 21, 2013

You're a Good Man, Charlie Fyfe

Nobody ever heard of my great-grandfather. This is why.

Charles Fyfe was born in 1881, the twelfth child of Scottish immigrants, somewhere in New Zealand. New Zealand, at that time, was recently colonised and represented for many Europeans a kind of idealised ‘new world’ and opportunity for a new life.

Charles – or “Charlie”, as he was called in the title of this blog post – became a student of chemistry. Once he graduated, he opened his own pharmacy. As a pharmacist, he had easy access to opium, his drug of choice, to which he soon found himself addicted. This detail, I think, is nicely evocative of the period. Opium having become obsolete in the course of the 20th century, the drug evokes in the modern imagination clichéd, Jazz Age vogue – opium as a dark companion to the Charleston – before it does serious substance abuse.

Charles, we can infer, wasn’t discreet about his vice. He was arrested multiple times on drug charges and occasionally imprisoned. But what Charles lacked in discretion, he made up for in jailbreaking: being, God knows how, able to escape from prison repeatedly.

In the few free moments afforded Charles by his preoccupying interests in opium and being jailed, he entertained the company of several young women. One of those women, Alice Montgomery, bore him a son: my grandfather. Upon the birth of his child, Charles decided he wasn’t really feeling it. He fled the country, quickly, and moved to Australia, leaving his girlfriends and son behind.

In Australia, Charles didn’t do much. He continued his opium use, of course, in his new capacity as a full-time vagrant. On one occasion, the police found Charles comatose against the wall of a barn, and released him out of sympathy when he claimed to be a veteran of the First World War whose mind had been addled by the horrors of trench warfare. Charles, naturally, never fought in World War I – the “Great War”, as it would have been called then, or, as Charles referred to it, “that war I definitely fought in.” A free man, Charles drifted around for several more years in this fashion until he was hit by a car and died.

My branch of the Fyfe family is not large, and so Charles has a comfortable hold on the title of Worst Fyfe. Until recently, though, when my aunt took an active interest in researching our genealogy, I didn’t know a thing about him. In my family, he is never discussed and deliberately forgotten. When he abandoned his family, his family abandoned him. His descendants, not particularly interested in claiming him, have been content to record his position on the family tree as just a person-shaped ‘citation needed’. Understandably so: you’d prefer to say your ancestor was a guy who built bridges, or even the person who hit Charles Fyfe with his car.

My younger brother is a medical student. He’ll be the first Fyfe since Charles to go into medicine. He prefers not to draw the comparison. The knowledge that Charles Fyfe existed, and was kind of a dick, has always lurked on the periphery of our family history, but nobody has ever wanted to do anything with that information. Until me, that is. I have been more than willing to take ownership of Charles’ troubled biography and assume responsibility for his legacy. I do this for exactly one reason: I’m the first Fyfe since Charles to be a writer, and in the typically eternal and unforgiving words of Joan Didion, writers are always selling somebody out.

Because of the way Charles lived and the way he died, he never received anything like a proper memorial. I don’t know where he’s buried, or if he even is. These words are the first to be written on Charles Fyfe in nearly a century, and the closest thing he’s ever had to an obituary. And can you imagine this being your obituary? Jeepers creepers. For how would Charles Fyfe have felt knowing that one day his story would be told to strangers around the world, but only in order to establish him as a bad person? That isn’t due to any selective editing on my part, I’ll point out. Charles’ story, as I’ve told it above, is literally all anyone knows about him.

As a brief aside, I know even less about Alice Montgomery, my great-grandmother. With Alice, there’s exactly one thing worth noting: in my aunt’s garage, there are many, many cassette tapes of Alice, as a much older woman, holding a séance to channel the ghosts of her dead relatives. What was going on with these people?

Charles, who appears now never to have done anything of value but father a son, died in 1945. He passed on under the tyres of car and passed into the next life – the next life, in which he ceases to be a human being, cedes control of his legacy and takes on relevance for the living as precisely one thing: subject matter.

Charles Fyfe is not a person, now, but material – material that, in the telling, serves the author as much as the subject, material that I’ve decided belongs to me. Charles Fyfe belongs to me. And so that is how Charles Fyfe’s story ends. Sold out by his great-grandson. Introduced to the world as a bad guy. What’s worse is that he had to wait until now for anybody to say anything about him. He had to wait that long before anybody cared about him enough to do so.

In Charles Fyfe’s wildest dreams, in the numbest of his reveries or as he bled out on the road, I wonder, very selfishly, what he would have thought about all this. I’m not really proud to think like that, nor to conclude this essay on my great-grandfather without mention of forgiveness or compassion or redemption, any of which would be conventionally appropriate at this juncture. Yet here we are. Here we are, Charles: I’m not that selfless either. Which makes sense, I suppose: after all, we are family.

Look what you did. You were born into the new world. And look what happened.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're a wonderful writer, Duncan. I'm really happy you revived Hit Self-Destruct.