Birds of Firle: Jackdaws by Deborah Parkin

Grief, love, family, jackdaws, and the colour blue are the things that brought this project together.

He always thought he would go out in a blaze of glory – the rock and roll death of an alcoholic. It wasn’t like that of course. Instead, we witnessed him commit suicide in slow motion in the most unromantic of situations.

My relationship with my father was complex. My mum divorced him when I was four years old and he was in and out of my life until he died. I would see him some weekends – I would stay with him in his bedsit in Finsbury Park, where you shared the toilet on the landing with the other tenants. Or he would visit on a Sunday and I would sit at the end of the street waiting for him – more often than not, he didn’t make it past the pub.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I accepted that my dad would never remember my birthday and he would always need a drink to survive, even if it would kill him. When he died, he died in pain, ungraciously. In my journal I have written that I believed as he lay dying, he had changed his mind – he wanted to live – but it was too late. This still haunts me.

My father died from cirrhosis of the liver. When he phoned to tell me his liver was damaged, I asked him to stop drinking. I will never forget his words, he said: ‘I stopped smoking for you, I’m not going to stop drinking. What do you expect me to do, sit and stare out of the window every day?’

And I thought: he’s right. What else would he do; how else would he spend his time? He was unreachable, he was never going to exorcise his demons when he could drown them.

My father was taken into hospital and my sister and I flew to Ireland to be with him. He was unrecognisable – his black hair was shockingly white; he had lost his teeth and seven stones in weight. He had onset dementia and was crying out in pain. The last words I can remember him saying was that he wanted to go outside and feel the cool breeze on his burning skin. I hadn’t expected him to die in front of me.

After a few surreal days of a full blown Irish Catholic funeral which included a procession down the street that he had grown up in and sitting with his dead body in a room filled with strangers from the length and breadth of Ireland, I came home. I didn’t pick up my camera for the next 18 months, but I would sit and watch the Jackdaws in my quiet moments.

I hated them when I first moved here – in the morning I was greeted with their fearsome caws when I longed for the beautiful song of the blackbird. But the more I watched them, the more I fell in love with them.

The Jackdaws remind me of my enormous Irish family – one that I will rarely see now that my father has died. You often see them in pairs, sitting on the barn roof or on the wall – lovingly grooming one another. At other times you hear them screaming at one another and fighting over territory and food. Again, reminding me of my Irish family with its petty arguments and deep, deep love and loyalty. They remind me that life goes on, and life goes on.

They say that blue is the colour of memory, of dreams and if that is true then the cyanotypes have been created in memory of my father. The blue of the sky that I witness when I sit outside the pub with a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke, waiting for him to finish his drinking. The blue of his postman uniform. The blue on his dead lips.

Grief, love, family, jackdaws, and the colour blue are the things that brought this project together.

Deborah Parkin is a photographer living on the remote hills of the North Pennines. Her work is steeped in family and memory. She embraces many forms of photographic practice, including historical processes such as wet plate collodion, cyanotype, bromoil and silver gelatin. Before becoming a photographer she studied English Literature, did an MA in Holocaust Writing and taught in adult education. Her bird cyanotypes have most recently been featured in Collosal magazine and PetaPixel, one of the world’s leading photography journals.

Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

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