Churches, Tragedy, and a little Comedy: A few Personal Reflections on some Recollections

My Mum, my Dad, and me as a baby.

For my first proper piece for this site I thought it would be fitting to provide some more information and some reflections on my life. Perhaps it will let readers get to know me a little better. Perhaps it’s because I’m not up to writing anything more taxing at the moment. (Though, come to think of it, writing about oneself is not easy. I’ll do my best.)

Well, the boring and basic stuff first. The name’s Sharp, Daniel James Sharp. The ‘James’ is from my father, who was known as Jim. I was born in Falkirk, which as anyone from Falkirk will tell anyone not from Scotland, is about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I currently live at home in Fife (The horror! The horror!) which is on the east coast of the country. My mother, named Aileen, moved back to her hometown in Fife, where much of her family still lives, in 2016. It was sad saying farewell to Falkirk, where I’d lived all my life, and since 2016 I have found myself living in Fife and Edinburgh as occasion demands.

The Forth Rail Bridge is not far from here, and whenever I cross it on the train to Edinburgh I can’t help but gaze at the astonishing views either side of me. It really is beautiful, particularly in the summer early evening and dusk, just when the light is fading to night.

The reason I am currently living at home is my appendix. Last summer I was living in an overpriced flat in Edinburgh (they all are) when, a few days after returning from a trip to Turkey, I found myself in paroxysms of pain and sickness. I went to hospital, was informed it was food poisoning, and was sent back to my flat with anti-sickness pills and the like. They didn’t do much good. The next day or the day after (I can’t remember which) I felt marginally better. Now that I reflect on it this was probably the brief relief period some sufferers of appendicitis experience when the organ in question has burst and is infecting one’s organs. I managed to get a train home, spent a night in excruciating pain (the relief period isn’t very relieving anyway, and does not last long) before going to another hospital nearby and being whisked quickly away to yet another hospital in Kirkcaldy for emergency surgery.

As was subtly hinted at above, my appendix had burst. And it had burst bad. No easy keyhole surgery for me and a couple of days recovery; rather, I was sliced open in the operating theatre and spent weeks in hospital being pumped full of antibiotics and unable to eat or move without a lot of pain. Once I was on the mend somewhat, thanks to the efforts of the wonderful National Health Service, I was able to go home, but even then was in pain and had to spend weeks carrying around a Vac, which is a small square machine attached to one’s wounds by a tube, which uses negative pressure therapy, whatever that is, to aid healing. I became quite attached to it in the end, named it Vic the Vac, but was soon well enough to have it removed. Then, weeks in bandages over the wound. Now, just an ugly remnant wound and scar tissue.

All’s well that ends well, though I remain quite annoyed that I never got to see my removed appendix as I hoped I would, and baffled that such a nearly useless organ, on its way out evolutionarily, can cause so much pain and suffering. Given how many people died from this before modern medical advances, and how easy a burst appendix is to die from today, and how horrific an experience it is even in the best of medical hands, the appendix serves nicely as yet another fusillade in the (already well stocked, to the point of overflowing, in fact) armoury of the case against ‘intelligent design’ (otherwise known as creationism, though ID advocates like the fatuous Michael Behe try their best to hide from the embarrassment this old term brings them, whilst making a fool of themselves and their now not-so-new appellation anyway).

So, of course I had to take this year out of university and leave the flat I was renting. Instead of approaching the end of the third of my four years studying I am now waiting, with considerable time on my hands, to re-enter my course in September. Another year behind, alas, is nothing new to me.

This is because I’m already several years behind where a typical person who’d finished school and gone to university at my age (which, I hate to be reminded, is twenty-three) would be. Brace yourselves for some more painful recollections.

I left school in 2012, which feels already too long ago, in my fifth year (which is the second last year of secondary education in Scotland, where one gains the Scottish equivalent of A-levels: Highers) and, for reasons unknown to me at the time but probably pertaining to my rather low standards of mental health back then, did pretty much nothing for a year. Then I applied and got in to the University of Stirling in 2013- my application was a late one and it was the only place that would still take me, though it is a fine institution for all that, and has a most beautiful campus.

For a few months I got myself ready to move out to the student accommodation in Stirling and prepared myself for university life- and then my father died. In 2011 he had had a bleed in the brain which he’d recovered from. In August 2013 he had another one, and this time he didn’t recover. That was a long week, in and out of hospitals, visiting him as he was moved to different wards in Forth Valley Royal, and then following him when he was moved to the Western General in Edinburgh. They had more specialist neurosurgeons there, and so his brain was operated on, a procedure which we were told went well. I remember how odd it was seeing him with half his hair shorn off, which of course they had done to get access to his skull. It was funny, actually, in that weird way things are funny when everything’s going to hell around you.

I remember when my mother and I were visiting him in Forth Valley. A woman walked by us as we entered the ward, saying something about how her husband or a relative was dying, and my mother replied that we were in pretty much the same boat as we passed her. An odd kind of solidarity, this has always stuck with me.

Not a huge amount else has of that week, however. It was stressful and emotional, and much of it is now a blurry memory. My Dad wasn’t in a great condition. He could not speak properly to us, and was under the impression that he was needed at work (he was retired but was still making money working as a delivery driver), always trying to pull out his catheter (having had one of my own lately I can testify that pulling one of those out of your urethra would not be a good move) and get out of bed to get there. This sort of dedication still impresses me. He may well have had a bleed in the brain, he may well have had surgery on that most complicated of organs, but he was damned sure he was leaving and going to work. Me, on the other hand, I can barely be bothered getting out of bed when I have nothing to do, let alone when strenuous duty awaits me.

On 23 August 2013, I was sitting up all night, as I often did at that time, watching rubbish TV into the early hours (for some reason another thing stuck in my mind was that an episode of some show called Greek about American student life was on, and the resolution of some mystery in the episode’s plot is something I’ve never found out, though I doubt it would be worth it). It was around 6am, I had not slept, and the phone rang. When my Mum told me it was the hospital telling us to get to Edinburgh immediately because this was the day when my dad was going to die, I’m not sure how I felt, aside from shocked. Because, for all the worries of that week or so, I really did not expect anything other than full recovery from my Dad. In 2011 we’d been told the worst and he had fought through it and recovered. It was utterly foreign to my mind, the idea that he may die. I don’t think it even seriously occurred to me. But here it was. He was going to die, and we had to hurry.

In the event, we did not actually have to hurry. We should have reminded ourselves of my Dad’s stubbornness. He had had numerous catastrophic strokes and the like during the night, and he did die that day, but not until around 10pm at night. He was unconscious all day, and was simply taken off life support, given morphine and left to pass in his own time with his loved ones around him (or, as we all could hardly stop ourselves from hoping, wake up against all the odds).

As I said I had not slept at all, and I occasionally collapsed in sheer exhaustion in my grandmother’s lap, so it was the most tiring day of my life as well as the very worst. My Mum and I were not alone. Many family members made their way to Intensive Care to be with us and him and each other. We had our individual moments with him, as he lay there unconscious, his breathing loud and somewhat laboured, to say our peace. In the end I believe we caught his last breaths. Afterwards, the kind nurses cleaned his body and his room and dimmed the lights so we could go in and say goodbye. It was beautiful in its way, peaceful even. But it was the first dead body I’ve ever seen, and do not recommend the experience.

This year, 2019, will mark the sixth anniversary of my Dad’s death. I miss him all the time, regret our arguments and how little I told him I loved him and how little time I spent with him whilst there was so little of it left. But then nobody knows such things at the time. Hindsight is an easy and potent self-torture tool. I can only be thankful for my family and my Mum in particular, who were also there for me all through my illness.

My Dad and I used to go on weekend trips to St Andrews in Fife, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I will forever be happy that just a few weeks before his death we were there. I think the last picture of us was taken there, from outer space, and this is not the only cosmic story involving my Dad (see the ‘About’ section). Those memories of St Andrews are eternal in my mind. Dad, I miss you, you flawed but brilliant and loving man. I hope he would be proud of me, having had a job, learning to drive, and going to my dream university.

At his funeral I picked out the poem ‘Invictus’ to be read. It will always be one of my favourites. I wrote a piece for The National Student a few years later near the time of the fourth anniversary of my dad’s death, in which I reflected on the poem and its importance to me. My dad was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, right to the end. Not long after his death, one of my dad’s driver colleagues informed us of a touching anecdote. Dad used to deliver to a lady’s house and would kick about a ball with her small son. Stuart, the colleague, had recently delivered there and had to inform them of his death, I believe, if I recall correctly, because the boy was wondering where his friend was. This moved me immensely, and still does. I never knew of this touching relationship my dad had with this woman and her child, but it was so him.

This, the worst time of my life, happened a week or so before I was due to start at Stirling. I was seventeen. Naturally, it delayed me a while, and though I moved to the city and studied for a semester or so, I dropped out in 2014. I just wasn’t ready. I decided to take some time out of studying to get a job and just experience the real world for a while and make some money. I ended up working at ASDA for two years, and the less said about that the better, except for a nod to some of the wonderful people I worked with, at least one of whom I think is a friend for life.

I applied for the University of Edinburgh twice, which, as Scotland’s best university, and indeed one of the world’s (oh, calm down St Andrews students, your institution is also brilliant and I’d also love to have studied there, but I’m not that rich and certainly not that posh), and which has educated many fine minds over the centuries, including those of David Hume and Charles Darwin, was my dream university as I said above. Edinburgh was also of course the centre of the Enlightenment and is one of the world’s most utterly gorgeous cities, and it is right on my doorstep. Try not to be too jealous.

The first time my application through due to some technicality I’d overlooked, but once I’d sorted that out I was given multiple offers and accepted a degree course in English Literature and History. That was in 2016. I moved to a student flat in Edinburgh, where I met some more great people, for my first year, stayed at home for my second year and, as I said, was living back in the city due to start third year when the evolutionarily irrelevant organ called the appendix burst inside me. I’ll be re-entering university in September. Hopefully this time no tragedies will befall me.

Which reminds me, I seem to have bad luck going to university. Before entering first year I wrote off my car after a nasty motorway accident on the way to a birthday party (for which I apologise to the dear friend in the passenger seat I could have killed that day). Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt, nor were any mortal coils shed. I must add here that I did in the end put in a brief appearance at the party, showing people I was still alive by having a whisky and a cigarette or two. (My two favourite vices, as it happens.)

So, family death, car crashes, medical emergencies. Has someone really taken a dislike to the idea of me going to university? I also broke up with my boyfriend, or rather he broke up with me if you must insist on things like the truth, a few weeks into first year. Which incidentally reminds me to inform my reader that I am, in fact, a homosexual. I was already going to hell for being an atheist so I decided to double up on the sins while I still could. Men are just much better looking, don’t you think? Aside from Eva Green, I’ll give that to my straight brothers and lesbian sisters (not my literal ones, I hasten to add- I am an only child, conceived through IVF).

Close friends knew before I came out to my Mum; I never got the chance to tell Dad, though despite his, shall we say ‘old-fashioned’, views on gay people a couple of things he said to me make me think he suspected and would have been accepting. Mum was (oddly, given she later told me she had in fact suspected) slightly put out at first but quickly put that behind her and is as supportive as anyone could wish. I came out to Mum because of my relationship with the aforementioned boyfriend, so it was downright rude that he broke up with me. Millennials, eh? Though I suppose I ought to at least be a little thankful for his part in making me finally come out.

A digression. I once used the word ‘homosexual’ in an essay for a university course, and the marker took it upon himself to write a little comment saying I should have used ‘LGBT’. Hmph. I’ll use whatever words I damn well please, thank you very much.

On the subject of metaphysics, one of the best parts of my student career so far has been involvement with the University’s Humanist Society (recently renamed as the Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society, not incidentally at the same time I was elected president for the year 2019-2020). I’ve made some great friends there, and the discussion is always stimulating and intriguing. Before my appendix incident I was Secretary of the Society, ready to bravely take the group forward into the academic year with my two colleagues on the committee, but of course I had to leave that position too, as well as my post as Deputy Editor of Retrospect Journal (more of which in the Archive above) which I had written for as a columnist during my second year; it is another great society with some lovely people involved.

I am also a paid up member of Humanists UK, Humanist Society Scotland, the Edinburgh Secular Society, the Scottish Secular Society, and the National Secular Society. Clearly, secularism, atheism, and humanism are fairly important things to me, and indeed they are a core part of my worldview, along with being a skeptic, rationalist, liberal, republican and (social) democrat.

I mentioned IVF above, and discussing the Humanist Society reminds me of another opportunity for digression. A year or two ago the Humanists had a discussion with the university’s pro-life society. I mentioned the circumstances of my conception, and asked if the wasted eggs/embryos meant my mother was a mass murderer (they were sure life begins at conception). I was told she was, but that they could still be happy for, mistake though I was, I was a person, and I was there, and that was good. A happy result of mass murder. I told my Mum this. I think she said there were no other eggs/embryos, which is a bit disappointing. I was quite fond of the idea of me being the survivor of some sort of laboratory genocide.

I was once a Christian (oh, what a long time ago that was!) and even part of the Scripture Union at primary school. The man who organised this little lunchtime Bible group was John Rollo, son of Pastor Michael Rollo, both nice men- the Pastor was known to my Dad’s side of the family and conducted his funeral (my father was of Orange Order Protestant stock, and therefore I am too, however unwillingly. Love for my Dad leads me to attach some loyalty to Rangers football team, though I don’t care much for the game, or sport in general for that matter, and certainly not for religion). I attended youth groups at the Pastor’s Pentecostal church sometimes, which were fun but I recall great impatience for the sermon to be over so that we could all get started on the video games. The biscuits were quite nice too. I also attended some sort of communion service there with my Dad once, and convinced myself I was tipsy on the wine, though I found out later it was non-alcoholic.

I still have my Bible, one of the ones John bought for all of us in the SU. We got to choose exactly which ones we got, and I have one with a black magnetic case. I’m looking at John’s inscription now (which makes me wonder about people writing in Bibles- is that even allowed? It’s only the empty front inside page- perhaps that makes it okay. Ah well.) in which he gives me a kind ‘well done’. I cannot remember what I did well, but vague recollection suggests it was for completing a course of quizzes or something. That was why we got the Bibles I think. Slightly odd present, now I think of it. Wouldn’t it have made more sense if we’d had Bibles to study before doing quizzes on its content? Or maybe we just got our own Bible at the end of it instead of having to use used ones. Who knows?

I have just looked up that Pentecostal church’s website. It is still of that particular Christian movement, but is now named ‘Found Church’. Which is also odd. How have they only just found it? It’s been in the same place for years! I really shouldn’t tease. I may now be avowedly anti-religious and a confirmed homosexual atheist, but none of that is their fault, and they were really very nice. I do remember being slightly disturbed by a baptism they showed us, though they only do it to adults as I remember, which is good. I’m not sure what their position is on homosexuality, but I vaguely recall an anti-gay marriage YouTube video they may have put up a few years ago- but do not quote me on that. The organisation of which they are a part, Assemblies of God Great Britain (such modesty!), does not mention a stance on homosexuality, at least not one my brief perusal of their website has revealed to me- but then I don’t claim knowledge of divine revelation so my powers of penetration are perhaps limited. The section on their beliefs do indicate a belief in the infallible inspiration of the Bible and belief in the Virgin Birth and all that guff. I must stop this- I’m trying to be kind!

On that note, I must say I enjoyed my time with them. They certainly didn’t turn me against religion (let alone guide me towards realising my homosexuality). No, it was a high school friend of startling intelligence who recommended to me Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (and much of my own subsequent reading over the years) which led me to put away childish things- and indeed to stop harking on to people about how ‘well you can talk about the Big Bang all you like but if there was no god how did the Big Bang happen? Well there! Nenenenene!’ Which is about as sophisticated as the most eminent theologians have ever gotten in millennia of trying to prove their doctrines. Incidentally I recall spending my early days as a zealous atheist debating religion with my great aunt- in her kitchen. She humoured me, sitting on a chair with her trademark whisky and irn bru in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Perhaps that’s where my own similar habits started…

But, no, I’m supposed to be being nice, aren’t I? Well, John’s inscription in the (alas, New Living Translation second edition, not the King James Version) Bible directs one towards 1st Timothy 4:12 which reads: ‘Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity’.

I’ve certainly failed in being a believer and in having faith, and am not particularly pure, but aside from those parts it’s fine advice, and advice I will try to follow (joking aside, I am still young). Of course, I’ll ignore the genocide, rape, and general insanity of the Old Testament and peaceful Jesus’s ravings about Hell and damnation in the sequel, and the climactic Revelation’s disturbingly lurid depictions of (not to mention desire for) the end of the world, and- but wait, I’m being nice, sorry. Well, aside from all the rubbish in the Bible, there are some nice bits, and much of it is beautiful literature (particularly the KJV). Amusingly, my Bible with John’s inscription has a sticker on the back with a quotation and an attempt to appeal to modern youngsters: ‘How strong is your signal?’ I can picture it now: “Move the phone around a bit boys, I’m just getting static but I can hear the deity mumbling a little, there we go, got him, clear as day! What’s that? YOU FAVOUR THE AMISH? Boys! Throw the phone away! Buy a horse and cart!”

Well, anyway, that’s about as nice as I can be about the Bible I’m afraid. But I feel much warmer towards those Pentecostals, particularly Pastor Michael, who my father liked very much and who, as I mentioned, presided at his funeral.

Now, this has gone on rather longer than I thought it would. I seem to have got carried away. I’ll end soon, but first I’d like to echo Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rusdhie and affirm some of my loves and hatreds:

  1. Loves: literature, science, people, non-human animals, irony, debate, openness, tolerance, freedom, liberty, democracy, history, politics, philosophy.
  2. Hatreds: faith, fanaticism, fundamentalism, religion in general, evil and stupidity, racism, totalitarianism, authoritarianism.

That is not to exhaust the two lists, but it gives a nice flavour I think. My life’s philosophy is based on humanism, reason, compassion, and joy. Counter-posed to that are things like what are listed in number 2 of the above, all of which are tyranny. I’m not entirely sure what I wish to do with my life. I hope to live it well for myself (I’ve started working out and- dear lord- meditating) and for others. Life is inherently purposeless in any cosmic sense, and absurd in the extreme. I like David P. Barash’s idea of thinking of meaning through combining the insights of evolutionary biology with the philosophy of existentialism- ‘evolutionary existentialism’ as he puts it. I recommend his essay on the matter.*

I think I have changed somewhat down the years and I have certainly been through a few rough spots to say the least, and I hope I have learned something from all this. I would like to write more, and travel, and meet the wonderful and the exciting as well as the odd and the misshapen people of the world. Perhaps my fondest dream is to travel around as a Scoop-style journalist in myriad locales, particularly dangerous ones.

Most of all, however, I’d quite like to win the lottery so that I can actually do some of that.

*’What the Whale Wondered: Evolution, Existentialism and the Search for ‘Meaning”, pp. 255-262 in the Festschrift Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed The Way We Think: Reflections by scientists, writers, and philosophers (2006, Oxford University Press) edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley. See also here for a similar piece from Barash.

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