Sunday, 3 May 2020

RIP Esmond Livermore 1942-2020

The only child of Thomas and Kathleen Livermore, Esmond Thomas Francis Livermore was born in the village of Takeley, Essex on July 24th 1942. Thomas Livermore was a nurseryman, and because of this was not called up to fight in the Second World War. My father Esmond was very much rooted in the natural world, and as a boy liked to explore the fields and woods around his home in rural north Essex.

I have absorbed the same interest in the natural world. Much of that comes from my father's own ability and desire to name and observe each insect, cloud or tree. As we would walk in the countryside he taught me the names of each tree and plant that we saw. I still remember at the age of about 5 my dad showing me how to identify the alder tree by its distinctive catkins and its proximity to water. At a later stage in my boyhood I developed a desire to learn the latin names of trees and my dad who knew some of the latin names would test my knowledge. 

There was always a sense with my dad that getting out into nature was an escape, an expansion of freedom, almost a kind of homecoming. We were lucky enough to move when I was seven to a house right next to the 1000 acre medieval forest known as Hatfield Forest. Many mornings I would go out into the forest on my own before school, and lose myself in imaginary worlds. The mystical geography of the forest was shaped by the names and stories that my dad knew about it, and by his use of it. He would cut hazel branches and make them into bow and arrows for my brother and I, or use them as staves. 

There was no aspect of the natural world that bored him. He meticulously kept notebooks on the weather for many years. I have them, and these are fascinating glimpses into his own character. Each day has a thermometer reading, a barometer reading, wind direction and a few lines on the daily weather. He kept these for nearly 25 years, each detail carefully recorded in neat ruled notebooks. Here are some selected entries:

1963: Oct 1 - Fairly cold in the morning and not very warm the rest of the day. Cloud persisting for              most of the day. Some leaves on the Chestnut beginning to fall.
          Oct 12th - a beautiful day, the best for a long time
          Oct 15th - Trees suddenly seem to have turned brown now and the leaves are falling fast 
          Oct 17th  - Today was a miserable wet day with rain and drizzle all day. Very low cloud                        passing over all day with a moderate wind.

These notebooks illustrate so clearly something fundamental in my dad's character - in them there is no separation between an aesthetic, almost mystical love of creation and an empirical interest in documentation and categorisation of the phenomena of the natural world. 

It almost seems like my dad managed to emobdy a medieval attitude to the natural world, in not falling prey to that dualistic curse of the modern world which sees a vast gulf between us and nature. As Ed Feser puts it, 

"Both the medievals and the early moderns regarded sensory experience as a crucial witness to the truth about the natural world.  But whereas the medievals regarded it as a more or less friendly witness, the moderns regarded it as a more or less hostile witness."

My father was born in the darkest days of World War Two and he died at the advent of a global situation perhaps even more world-shattering. Although he lived through times of peace and prosperity and stability, times which I am grateful to have been born into, times which in the way I have been describing sound like an idyllic childhood, there is a sense that this was merely a surface calm.

In 1947 Carol Robinson, the Catholic essayist, wrote:

"The world is holding its breath...before it plunges to its final destruction. This is the lull before the storm, the opportunity before the end of all opportunities." I believe this is true of the times Esmond lived through. Yet he rose above his time and his life pointed to a deeper and more blessed time which existed and will yet exist again.

What I shall call The Machine, was the thing that made its presence increasingly felt through the lifetime of my father. The Machine is a way of characterising a certain mindset and way of doing things in which technological solutions are considered the saviour of humanity, and replace trust in God, and humility as created beings, in need of God's grace. The Machine has extended its reach into every area of our lives.

I have so far been describing my father in terms of his friendly relationship to the natural world. But there was in his life an equally important relationship with technology. Technology is essentially tool-use. St Joseph, my patron saint, and who I see most clearly embodied in my father, is described in the Gospel Greek as a 'tekton', or craftsman, skilled in the use of tools.

No-one who knew my dad could fail to remember his skill as a user of tools. Whether it was DIY in the house, house extension, repairing and maintaining cars and other machines, electrical issues, gardening or whatever, his skilful work was always generously offered without complaint to all the extended family.

One of my most treasured possessions is a hammer that dad had from his father, given to me a year ago before his condition deteriorated, and repaired so that it is as useful to me as it had probably been to my grandfather.

Dad's workplace was where technology starts to become the Machine of which I spoke. Good tools enable us to interact more effectively with our environment, to create an ordered home, or to feed us. Even before the Fall, God told Adam to "till the earth and keep  it", meaning that technology as such is not inherently bad. But after the Fall, there is a change in the way tools need to be used. Adam will have to toil by the sweat of his brow. Now the friendly relationship to nature is replaced with a suspicious or hostile one.

Dad enjoyed his work. He had some good friends and was able to develop his skilfulness here as well. But the workshop, with its constant noise, meant that he developed hearing loss in his later years. The aircraft he worked on are one of the chief polluters of the modern world he loved so much.

My dad died of Covid-19. He didn't fit the criteria for a ventilator. Most patients on them die anyway, but this final deprivation of a key bit of technology was a great blessing. The use of technology to artifically prolong life beyond its natural span would have meant a torturous future for my father had he survived. He had advanced Parkinson's disease and a diseased heart valve.

I often think of my dad in the garden. The garden with its balance of human cultivation and natural growth just seems the perfect place for him. Most summer evenings through my childhood would find my dad out in the garden or shed until it got dark. He would come in late for a cup of tea and a rest. There was always work to do but it was not toil - he brought to it an attitude of patient perseverance and gentle cultivation which bore fruit over years and decades.

And it was the same with his relationship to us his children. One thing about my dad, he didn't smile very often, but when he did, it lit up his whole face. 

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.


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