Archive | November, 2013

My Dad is 90! ( Story of an Ordinary man in the 20th/21st centuries.)

25 Nov

Last weekend, my father, Maurice Reuben B—-, hit the milestone of his 90th birthday. Family members from far and near gathered at a hotel on the edge of Chatsworth Park, in the Derbyshire Peak District to celebrate this achievement over a grand “afternoon tea.” With all his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren arranged around the table before him, plus their respective partners, his youngest son, my brother Gr—-, delivered a short tribute to Maurice , recounting all he had done in his 9 decades. Unfortunately I don’t think dad registered much of it as he was totally engrossed in munching his egg and cress sandwich!
It is amazing to think that my dad was born only 5 years after the end of the First World War. He was the youngest of 6 children born to George Arthur and Ada B—- in Barrow Hill near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He had 2 brothers and 3 sisters. I think Maurice was very close to his father and still speaks of him fondly. George Arthur worked down the pit and then later in the great iron and steel works that dominated the town. He also had a big garden, an allotment and like many people in those days, a small holding on which he kept pigs and chickens. When he was not at school, Maurice helped his dad with the animals. In fact, at school he was given the unflattering nickname of “Piggy B—-.” One day my granddad went off to the livestock auction. Grandma gave him strict instructions not to spend any more of their limited income on yet another “porker.”. He did as he was told, but instead came back with a pony which he said he had saved from the “gypsies”.
Maurice helped to care for all these animals and birds and was particularly attached to the pony. He and his father used to harness it up to a little cart and go out selling firewood around the streets. But pigs were their speciality. Farmers came from all over the area if they had sick pigs because George Arthur, helped by Maurice, had the knack of diagnosing them, treating them and making them better. A whole selection of mysterious potions was stored in the outhouse alongside the sacks of pig and chicken feed. I recently talked to someone whose grandma was a neighbour of theirs. She remembers George Arthur and Maurice walking round with a wooden yoke on their shoulders. It was specially shaped to go round their necks. Dangling on the end of chains were 2 pails. I asked my dad what was in the buckets, and he replied “pig swill.” The lady I spoke to also remembers the father and son next door slaughtering pigs out in the street and the sticky blood trickling down the public drain. It’s almost unbelievable to me that my own father was involved in such medieval scenes! No wonder he always opts for gammon, bacon, sausages, ham or pork when he is perusing the menu at a restaurant or cafĂ©. He is still “Piggy B—-” at heart. His upbringing has determined his diet. That same upbringing has also determined my life-long diet. I was so shocked and repelled by the whole thing that I became a vegetarian, something my dad has never understood.
I think of Maurice walking around with that wooden yoke across his shoulders and then think of my own children engrossed in their laptops and smartphones. What a gulf has appeared in just 2 generations! When I mention computers to my parents, their eyes immediately glaze over and I can tell that my words are not registering. Computers are alien contraptions to them like something out of Doctor Who. They will never own them and never understand them. The internet is something beyond their imagination. Similarly I know that Maurice’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will probably never be faced with the task of skinning a pig or disembowelling a chicken. Even for me it’s an impossibility to imagine living that sort of life. My dad can just about remember it, his distant childhood in another world, but for the rest of us, that lifestyle is lost forever in the mists of time.
Dad lived his childhood in the “Roaring Twenties” but I don’t think he met any flappers or danced the Charleston. He lived through the 1926 General Strike and the 1929 Wall Street Crash without being aware of them as he was a child. However the failure, in 1926, of the miner’s campaign to get better conditions and a living wage did impinge on the family as it was this that persuaded George Arthur to leave the mines as he was unwilling to accept the insultingly lower pay deal that was on offer. That was when he entered the steelworks. My dad does have vague recollections of the poverty of those days and tells the story of his father taking a wheel barrow and a pick axe to the spoil heaps near the mine in order to scavenge for pieces of coal for the fire. ( this was well before the days of central heating.) Apparently, one day he found a very big man on his patch who told him to get lost. Granddad pretended to retreat but then rushed at the intruder with his pick-axe handle and gave him such a hefty whack that he ran away and never returned!
My father left school when he was only 13. He received only a very basic education. He has never been a very good writer or speller but has always been keen on reading, voraciously devouring anything in print that comes within his range. He has always been very curious about the world around him, and never misses the news. Thrown on to the depleted job market at the height of the Great Depression, dad managed to get employment by delivering shoe repairs for the local Coop on his bike. One day he delivered some shoes to an uncle who he had never seen before because of a quarrel over a will between George Arthur and his brother. It was a bit of a shock for Maurice to see his long estranged relative. After the delivery job, dad got work in a light bulb factory. It was either too cold or, if he was near to the glass furnace, too hot. He told me that he worked there for 13 months and caught 13 colds! Then, on the eve of the Second World War, dad landed his dream job on the railways. It was prized employment because it was a job for life with a proper career structure. Maurice started by cleaning the dirty, oily locomotives in the shed at Barrow Hill. He then became a fireman or stoker for many years. This was the tough, back-breaking job of feeding the furnace of the steam locomotive. He came home exhausted and looking as black as a coalman. Dad worked as a railway fireman for many years, at least 12. Then he got promoted to driver status. Later on he retrained so he could drive the diesel locomotives that took over from the steamers.
Maurice drove coal trains linking the pits with the power stations in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He worked unsociable hours in a constant rotation of shifts. The worst shifts were nights and early mornings. They played havoc with his sleep patterns and may explain his quick temper with my sister, G—–, and I when our playing and squabbling disturbed the peace of the house. In the war, Maurice fancied going into the navy but his work on the railways was deemed an essential service for the war effort. So he fought Hitler on the Home Front. He and his mate had to cover the hatch into the fire with a tarpaulin so its glow did not give their position away to the German bombers droning in the sky above. One night, he told me, his coal train was diverted on to a siding as a fast passenger train was due on the mainline. As they waited in the pitch black the mainline ahead of them was suddenly lit up by a line of vividly exploding German incendiary bombs. It was a close call!
Well dad ( and the rest of the country) saw off Hitler and he celebrated by meeting my mum, Jessie, on a blind date and getting engaged. They married a couple of days after Jessie’s 21st birthday in July, 1947. In those days, one wasn’t deemed to be an adult until one hit 21. It was a traditional white wedding in a Methodist Church in Chesterfield. That was very appropriate, for dad was immediately sucked into the life of staunch Methodism that dominated my mum’s family. Maurice stopped swearing and drinking ( as I’m sure he did as a lad) and took the “pledge”. He joined the church choir led by his father-in-law ( my maternal Granddad), attended the service every Sunday, became a Sunday School teacher and later, he even became a lay-preacher.
By now the Welfare State and the National Health Service had been introduced by Atlee’s Labour government, just in time to benefit dad and his family. I arrived in 1949 and Gl—-, a couple of years later. Times were tough though as strict rationing was still in force and it was the age of austerity. In the 1950s Maurice worked hard to keep the family afloat. In that decade it was a matter of honour that a man should be able to support his family. As soon as she married, my mother gave up her job in a grocery shop. It was dad’s duty to bring in the wage. He got a weekly pay-packet, a small wad of cash in a see-through envelope, and he handed it straight over to his wife, every Friday. She was in charge of the family budget. She would give a bit back to her husband to serve as his spending money. This was the age of “make do and mend” and of “looking after the pennies so the pounds will look after themselves.” The age of austerity lasted well into the 1950s. I think my dad did really well in supporting his family in such difficult times. As well as working, he also, like his father, developed a large produce garden. I remember it being full of vegetables and avenues of fruit trees. He was very handy around the house, making and mending things himself rather than calling in tradesmen. When I was young, he made me a toy garage and bought an old bike for me and did it up.
At first my mum and dad lived with mum’s parents in their 2 bedroomed terrace house. It must have been a squash and thus quite stressful. It was not the best of circumstances to begin married life in especially after I arrived. By the time my sister joined the family we were living in our own place which must have been a matter of great pride to my father. It was a rented railway house with just cold water, no bathroom and an outside toilet, just like most ordinary houses in the 50’s. It was in an “idyllic” location next to a disused canal, a railway and the large iron, steel and chemical works. Sometimes a bad egg smell swept over our estate. Then in 1959 came a big improvement in our quality of life. Maurice and Jessie were finally allocated a council house after being on the waiting list for 12 years. My dad must have been so proud when we moved into a property that had hot and cold running water, an indoor toilet and, wait for it …. a bathroom! The tin bath which Maurice and Jessie had to fill up every Sunday night ( me at one end and my sister at the other) was now consigned to history. We were still renting but it was a big step up in the world. By the end of the 50’s Britain was experiencing a significant increase in the standard of living for many people. Even Maurice with his moderate income, could afford to buy a washing machine, an early vacuum cleaner, and most importantly a telly! It was only a 12 inch black and white but it was an exciting development for us. Before, we had spent our evenings doing jigsaws and making “proggy” mats with the wireless ( radio) on in the background. By the end of the 50’s we even had the new commercial channel: ITV. So Maurice in his 40’s was at the head of a mostly happy and prospering little family. Every year we had a seaside holiday using his free rail passes and we always had a magical Christmas with presents, lights and tree, as well as the carol service at chapel.
By the early 1960’s my dad had stopped walking to work and had acquired a motor scooter. Then in the mid 60’s his family was completed by the late arrival of my younger brother Gr—-. It was a bit of a surprise but a very pleasant one. Unfortunately this happy event was quickly followed by a very unfortunate one. Maurice and Jessie were travelling on the Lambretta to the local shops when a car sped out of a side street and smashed right into them. They broke 3 legs between them. Maurice was worse off as he broke 2 and one was a bad break. He was in hospital for many weeks. It was a traumatic event for the family but we all closed ranks and got through it. It was stressful as my little brother was only a few months old at the time. Social services had to step in to help. The only good thing to come out of all this was the compensation which my dad used to buy his first car. It was a blue 1965 Ford Cortina. It felt as if the family had really come up in the world and I think my dad must have felt very proud as he parked it outside the house.
Maurice’s next big challenge was dealing with my teenage rebellion. As the 60’s progressed and I got deep into adolescence, I began to question and then reject much of my parent’s lifestyle, opinions and values. This was now the “swinging 60’s” but my mum and dad stayed stuck in a world of popular classics, light opera and brass bands. I now confronted and affronted them with loud pop and rock music. Used to taking their children to Sunday worship every week, they were now disappointed to find that their offspring no longer wanted to go.( my sister was with me on this one.) Used to carving the Sunday roast, meat he had proudly put on the table to feed his family, my father was now faced with a son who had become a vegetarian. Hair, clothes, choice of friends and girls were other areas of conflict. My dad at first tried to deal with my rebellion by being the stern Victorian patriarch.( as his father had probably been before him.) He ordered mum to keep giving me the same piece of meat that I had refused to eat and not give me any more food in the meantime. His strong stance was doomed to failure as it made me even more determined and my mum fed me as soon as he went to work, somewhat undermining his position. There were many altercations. Dad still had a bad temper at times and was not against slapping us to press home his point. In this he was nothing unusual as corporal punishment was still regarded as acceptable in homes and schools in the 1960’s. One day when I was about 15, dad lost his temper with my sister and advanced towards her with his hand raised. I quickly stood between them and told him to back off. He backed away defeated. I think it was a turning point in our relationship. Maurice was now losing total control over his children.
To be fair, the 1960’s must have been very tough for my dad. Both his parents died in their early 70s within a few months of each other. His parents in law, my maternal grandparents, who he was very close to, also passed away in that decade. He was working full time on a job with anti-social hours and did as much overtime as he could. He also worked as a voluntary caretaker at the Methodist chapel. Maurice now had a young child to care for and simultaneously had to deal with a simmering teenage rebellion from his eldest son. Of course he also broke his legs and, in the same decade he suffered from a slipped disc and had a lot of back pain!
The 1970’s brought about an improvement in his lot to a certain extent. My sister and I had both disappeared to college in Manchester so home life must have been a lot quieter with just my young brother Gr—- left in the nest. At the start of that decade, Maurice and Jessie also reached a very significant landmark. They bought their own house, a 3 bedroomed bungalow on a new estate. It had been a long-term dream. Again I imagine how proud my dad must have been as he took possession of the keys to his own place. Now he could see the fruits of his labour in bricks and mortar. At almost exactly the same time as Neil Armstrong was becoming the first man to step on to the moon, my dad was stepping into his very own house
Maurice was now in his later forties and early fifties. Things calmed down between us such that he came to my wedding in 1970 and was an affectionate and enthusiastic grandfather when the next generation arrived. He was very supportive and we managed to develop a more civilised and less volatile relationship. Problems still arrived in Maurice’s life though. My sister’s marriage broke up in unpleasant and upsetting circumstances. Then my parents’ dream home developed alarming cracks because of mining subsidence. They had to move out into temporary accommodation and eventually, at the start of the 80’s, they bought a new bungalow down the road using the compensation money from the National Coal Board. They took a chance though as the new place was still in a subsidence area. Luckily it has now passed the test of time as mum and dad are still living in it.
In the 1980’s Maurice was nearing the end of his long career on the railways. He went all the way through to 65 and finally retired in November, 1988. He could have gone earlier as his bosses were willing to give him an early retirement package as they were looking to prune the workforce at the shed. However these plans were constantly blocked by the rail drivers’ union ASLEF. Dad had become bitterly anti-union and had had numerous clashes with ASLEF’s local officials. He had to be in the union as it was a closed shop, something my dad vehemently disagreed with as it denied him his freedom of choice. I tend to agree with him on this. He had become a regular reader of the Daily Mail, since the demise of the News Chronicle, and had swallowed many of its more right wing views. I remember having an argument with him about comprehensive schools which he was against despite me having failed the 11 plus. In 1984 during the big Miner’s Strike my dad made himself very unpopular by driving coal trains from Nottinghamshire where the miners were working on and betraying their fellow workers in the rest of the country. While dad has never voted Tory ( it was not in his working class DNA), in this case he was assisting Mrs Thatcher’s smashing of the miners by being a strike breaker. He did this for personal reasons I think because he hated the unions. They got their revenge on him by blocking his early retirement and making him slog on to the bitter end. The ASLEF officials also used their influence with the managers to make sure he was messed around as much as possible.( according to my dad’s account that is.) His shifts were constantly changed at short notice so that he didn’t know whether he was coming or coming. Retirement finally came as a huge blessing. Maurice was worn out. His 65th birthday was on a Monday and his manager kindly told him to empty his locker on the previous Friday, so he was given one day’s pay for free.
I think retirement was a big relief to Maurice. He calmed down a lot and had a more relaxed attitude to life. His temper disappeared. Although my relationship with him had improved a bit he was still much closer to my sister. Everytime I spoke to him ( and mum) they were full of stories about what Gl—- and her new husband Andy, had been doing. They owned a hotel in Skegness and my dad helped Andy modernise the place, converting the bedrooms to en-suite accommodation. Andy,unlike my brother and I, was a very handy person. He had lots of practical skills. I think dad saw Andy as the son he never had. He could relate to him a lot better than his two “namby pamby”, middle-class, vegetarian sons. ( Graham too had given up on eating animals.) Dad was still quietly supportive of me though and helped move a van load of furniture into my post- divorce flat, coming up from Derbyshire to Tyneside to do so.
And so life went on. Maurice’s new routines were nearly all centred around the chapel. He was caretaker, chief steward, a Sunday School teacher and member of the choir. When my mum hit health and mobility problems in her 70’s Dad became her official carer, even though he was 3 years her senior. He had been as fit as a fiddle for most of his life. I made more regular visits but he never really talked to me about anything personal. He was more comfortable with chit chat and kept his emotions to himself. When he did talk, he often talked at you, relating endless stories about how he, personally, solved all the problems of the railways. He has never been a very good listener or conversationalist. My parents survived another difficult period when my brother had to come back and live at home with them after his job fell through. Neither party liked this arrangement I feel and they constantly rubbed each other up the wrong way. In the 90’s mum became very ill and dad thought she was possibly going to die. He went to pieces when she was in hospital. They had had a very long, loving marriage and had grown dependent on each other. Luckily mum pulled through and they plodded on with their quiet life in Chesterfield. Mum and dad have never moved out of the town. They now live just a couple of miles from where they were born. They have also never travelled overseas except to the Isle of Wight. They have been content to have their annual holiday at a traditional English seaside resort. To me it is if they were still living in the 1950’s. Foreign package holidays and budget airlines have never figured on their restricted radar.
In his 80’s Maurice gradually got frailer. He has become more and more forgetful. ( haven’t we all?) In the second half of his 80’s his mobility started to decline. He now shuffles slowly with the aid of a stick. He has experienced various health problems mostly controlled by his daily tablets. He has warned me about getting old and told me that he doesn’t recommend it! He has developed a tremor such that his hands shake uncontrollably when he is trying to eat or drink. Drinking a hot cup of tea has become a perilous occupation! Despite all this he still manages to give his beloved wife, breakfast in bed every morning. When he got to 83 he told me that he had now lived longer than every other member of his large family. Now he has made it to 90!
As he ate his sandwiches and cakes and the whole family sang happy birthday to him he looked very pleased with himself but seemed to be only vaguely aware of what was happening. I don’t think he looks back over his long life very much, if at all. He mainly lives in the present, going from day to day. He tells me he wants to get to 102 because one of the ladies at chapel made it that grand old age. I know he gets very tired and is fed up with health and mobility problems. He still lives mostly in his own world and never reveals his private thoughts or emotions. I know if I phoned him up today and told him that I loved him his answer would almost certainly be : ” Here’s your mum.”