On Björk and Divorce
My mum’s parents’ lives have always been an open book, thanks no doubt to Nana’s razor-sharp memory. I know that they met when Grandpa volunteered to life-save Nana in their youth group swimming club. She remembers the date that they sold their house in Michigan, the swift deal aided by the bottle of Scandinavian liquor in their freezer, and exactly what time it was when they realised that an impending blizzard would prevent them picking up my auntie from school. She’s always sure to include the surnames of anyone she’s talking about, making Mrs Edwards in Lancashire or Brian in Bournemouth less abstract.
My other gran is about 17 years older than Nana. My whole life, she’s looked like a very old lady with the kind of face that makes it impossible to tell what she looked like as a young person. Until my grandad died four years ago, their past lives were equally obscured. Trying to unpick the impulse that prevents us from asking an older relative about their youth, the closest I’ve got, cowardliness aside, is that perhaps it feels like a tacit acknowledgement that they’re going to die. It took me being drunk on a train to ask my gran about her past.
Nobody in my family really knew what happened to her first husband, my dad’s half-brother’s father. There was talk of prison or military service, some sort of suspicious disappearance. Regardless: he walked out one day and was gone for over a year, maybe several years. Then he came back, begging forgiveness. Gran was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, and didn’t bother getting to her feet to tell him no. This would have been the turn of the 1960s at the very latest. Some time after that, she met my grandad. They had my dad soon after. At first, they lived near Blackpool and Gran worked two jobs to make ends meet ̶ as a postal clerk during the day and in a factory making toilet-paper tubes by night. Then they moved south, my dad sitting in the back seat next to a dustbin full of his goldfish.
When Grandad died four years ago, Gran called him her “lifesaver.” She is now 89 and has become accustomed to her unwanted independence for a second time. She lives alone and finally had to buy a microwave, following decades of resistance. Maybe she shouldn’t have, but she got back behind the wheel again, after years in the passenger seat. There are regular coach holidays with a widowed friend. I love that they sometimes book them a year in advance.
And now, at the age of 46, my mum is dealing with unwanted independence for the first time. My dad told her that he is leaving. They have been together since she was 16 and he was 21. If there was a sign that I had tried not to notice, it was that Dad had been playing Coldplay’s Ghost Stories every day, multiple times a day, since it came out last year. It felt weird how much my parents were enjoying an oppressively sad album about the breakdown of a long-term relationship. When I went on holiday with them last summer, Mum was calling it “the best album of all time”. When I next went home, in November, it was still on every day, though she didn’t seem to like it as much any more.
At Christmas, I offered my dad a copy of the accompanying live DVD that I had won in a competition. He already had it, and it was on at high volume whenever the CD wasn’t. I finally asked him how he could listen to something so sad so often, but he said he hadn’t taken much notice of the lyrics. When Coldplay was on, he was happy. But whenever anyone around him asked a question, he responded with a single syllable. Mum had clearly been studying the football news in order to try and engage him in conversation. She hates football. It didn’t work anyway.
A few days after I found out that he was leaving, Björk rush-released Vulnicura. I’m sorry that she had to release it because of a leak, but grateful to have this album through which to try and make sense of the heartbreak that accompanies the crumbling of an institution. Last week I told a friend that having to hear about the scarred sinew of my parents’ relationship felt worse than that time in my mid-teens when they had noisy sex so often that I had to put together a special mixtape (mostly Keane songs) to blank it out. But Björk’s intimate “History Of Touches” is helpful in its methodical disassembly and compartmentalising of a relationship: the prospect of folding away what was and storing it in the past feels more tangible, possible.
I appreciate Björk’s linear path through her anger, loss and recovery. Vulnicura is so much more than mere therapy, but her journey from brokenness to becoming a shining rocket feels galvanising, full of searing hope. I sort of wish my mum liked weird music so that she could live inside this album for a little while. Instead, she’s responsible for the year’s best music-related diss: she reminded my dad that he’s not poor, wounded Chris Martin, but Gwyneth, if the rumours are true.
At the end of “Quicksand”, Björk sings, “Every time you give up/You take away our future/And my continuity and my daughter’s/And her daughters’/And her daughters’…” I am furious at my dad for rupturing our family like this, for what he has done to my mum. But if there is one thing I have learned from my gran, and from my mum’s strength and fire in the face of all this, it’s that we have a continuity that no man can disrupt.
Photograph by Anonymous