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Vintage Man.

19 Sep

I’ve recently been feeling my age. I am 66 years old. The signs are all there. I have less energy and after a busy day, usually creep off to bed well before 11pm. I sometimes grumble about the younger generation and gently mock the technologies they are addicted to ( until I get into them  myself.) I have put on a late middle age/early old age spread and need to lose a couple of stone at least, but I cannot be bothered to join a gym or employ a personal trainer. Although I still look forward to plenty of times in the future, I increasingly hark back to the past. I recently had a coffee with my 90 year old mum and two of her chapel mates They all agreed that life would be much better if the “olden days” could be brought back again. Life seemed to have speeded up around them. They were increasingly bewildered by the frantic pace of change and multiple choices they are constantly bombarded with. I sympathise and empathise with the 3 old ladies to a certain extent. Even just going back to my own childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s, life seemed so much simpler, calmer and more pleasant. The roads were much quieter, there were only a couple of channels on the TV, there was no Internet and no social media sites to shower us with trivia and worry us about “keeping up.” With my rose-coloured glasses on, I can truly state: ” Those were the days!”

Yes, I should be feeling “past it” whatever “it” is, and should be gradually moving out of the main swim of things. I am retired and my teaching career is over. My children are all adults and no longer depend on my financial support. In many ways I have become a more peripheral figure in society. Yet, ironically, in recent years, it seems that I have become more and more trendy. This is because, you see, I am a genuine “vintage” person. “Vintage” is an extremely popular concept these days. People have “vintage” tea parties. Couples arrange “vintage” weddings. Cafes offer “vintage- style” afternoon teas. “Vintage” television shows are resurrected and rescreened, such as the current series of favourite BBC sitcoms. Collectors comb charity and antique shops for “vintage” items from tea sets to table cloths, from bric- a- brac to toys, inspired by daytime TV shows such as “Bargain Hunt.” Baking, the activity that was done in the past out of necessity, is now all the rage, even though we can easily buy all the items from the supermarket. The baking and cupcake craze is popularised on Facebook and other sites  and by phenomenally successful TV shows like “The Great British Bake Off.” For some reason, there seems to be a great thirst for items and activities from the recent past. Maybe some of this is generated by a powerful wave of nostalgia. Maybe people yearn for a simpler, less stressful time when Britain was still “great.” How else can one explain the enduring popularity of “The Archers” on radio or “Coronation Street” on TV? In those days, people talked to each other a lot more instead of being cut off in their private worlds of electronic devices. As far as I can work out, “vintage” means anything from the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s. And guess what — I am a real-life “vintage” human being! I don’t need to watch “Bake Off” to find out how to make cakes, bread and biscuits, as 60 years ago I watched my mum and my grandma doing it in real life. I remember being sent to the corner shop to buy the yeast that would later make the dough rise. I recall my mum placing trays of dough balls on the hearth near the open coal fire and the heat gradually baking them into delicious bread-rolls. This is why I am so excited! Surely a real vintage person will now be of great interest and be in great demand at the numerous vintage events? After-all, a tea-pot or a sundae dish cannot tell you what life was like back in the 1950’s , but I can!

I was recently at a vintage garden party for a charity I support. I wondered round expectantly, hoping to get into fascinating conversations about outside toilets, tin baths and coal houses. I was all ready to explain to an enthralled audience how we enjoyed a fruitful life without any need of the Internet and how we entertained ourselves before television. I wanted to tell people what it was like listening to the music of Vera Lynn, Perry Como or Val Doonican, before the age of the Beatles and Stones. Elvis had burst on the scene in the later 50’s of course but he was banned in our house. However, much to my disappointment, those “vintage” conversations never took place. The older people would have remembered those times anyway and probably wanted to forget about them. The younger people never asked me any questions and were never more than a few seconds away from checking their smart-phones. It was a very good crowd of people, all chatting away and eating their sandwiches and cakes off “vintage crockery” and drinking their tea from “vintage” tea pots. However,nobody was interested in finding out about real vintage life back in the day. I would have had to go to the Local History Society for that type of conversation. It was disappointing. I never got to tell them what is was like getting undressed in a unheated bedroom, or marvelling on a winter’s morning at the wondrous patterns “Jack Frost” had made on the window pains. Maybe I was just an old irrelevance after-all? I was just fooling myself, thinking I had become trendy at my advanced age. It was just silly, wishful thinking!  Then I remembered this blog, and decided to write a little bit about “vintage times” to my captive audience.

You see, I really do  remember the days before television came to rule the living room. I know it’s a cliché, but we truly did make our own entertainment back then. For example, my family loved doing giant jig-saw puzzles with up to a thousand pieces. My mum, dad, sister and I would all gather around the dining table to make our contribution to the evolving picture. The sky or trees were particularly difficult. One piece of blue or green was very much like another, or so it seemed. First of all, we had to sort out all the straight edged pieces, for these would make up the border. Then all the different colours or subjects would be sorted and placed into groups, ready to be eventually slotted into their correct places. It was a great family activity, bringing us all together after a busy day at work or school. It taught us patience and deferred gratification. It taught us categorisation and colour appreciation. It gave us socialisation and cooperation skills which stood us in good stead in later life. Sometimes it took many sessions to finish. If the jigsaw was unfinished when it was time to eat, we simply laid the table cloth gingerly on top of it and ate our meal extremely carefully, not wishing to spoil our emerging masterpiece. When the puzzle was finally completed we got a great feeling of satisfaction and pride. I particularly enjoyed doing pictures of railways featuring snorting steam locomotives. My dad was a railwayman. It helped to engender a lifelong passion for trains and keeps me linked to my father  to this day even though he is sadly no longer with us.

If you think that all that sounds very exciting, just wait till I tell you about “clippy mats!” In line with the current craze for all things “vintage” there is now a big revival of interest in this old, home-based method of rug making. In the north-east of England, where I now live, they are called “hooky” or “proggy” mats. In Derbyshire they were known as “clippy mats” or “rag-rugs.” It was another family activity before the age of television. Maybe the radio would be on in the background. Making these rugs or mats was a common activity in working-class homes in the north up to the middle of the 20th century. Our family made them in the 1950s. They were hand made from old socks, rags and other recycled fabrics. These were the days of post-war austerity when many items were in short supply and it was regarded as a crime to waste anything. These were the days of darning socks and mending old clothes instead of throwing them away  or donating them to charity shops. Well known phrases were: “make do and mend” and “waste not, want not.” So it was that we made our own rugs from recycled rags. I know it sounds very Dickensian but it’s true. These hard-wearing rugs and mats kept our feet warm before the days of wall-to-wall carpeting.

First of all, the family would set to work, cutting the old material into little strips. They would be about as long as a match-box. Then a large piece of hessian or sacking would be stretched across a frame and secured. This frame was placed on the dining table. The hessian would be arranged with the wrong side of the mat facing us. Once the strips of material had been prepared, we armed ourselves with little metal “prodders” and set about pushing or prodding the strips through the hessian backing. Somehow each strip of material was secured ( I cannot remember how) and the result was that on the other side, a thick, colourful rug emerged. It had a shaggy, long pile. Once it was placed down in front of the fire, we were all very proud of our creation.

Nowadays, mat-making is all about pleasure, but in those “vintage” days , for poorer families, it was a necessity. As well as keeping our feet warm, the mats also made good bed covers. It was another great activity that brought our family together and strengthened our relationships. Recently my daughter has learnt how to make these “proggy” or “clippy” mats at a skills- sharing session up in Whitley Bay where she lives. I also came across a “proggy” mat maker at an arts festival in Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast. Seeing her pushing the strips of material through the sacking took me straight back to my childhood and the family rug/mat making sessions we enjoyed in the 1950s. I talked to the lady and she said quite a lot of people had spoken to her about doing this when they were children.

Obviously there are lots of things I could tell you about life in the real “vintage” days. It was not all hunky dory. I remember the long process of making a coal fire instead of merely flicking a switch to get heating. I remember bath-time, when water had to be heated up in a copper which was like a large kettle. The water was then poured into a tin bath which usually hung on a nail in the outside wall. My dad would wash me very roughly at one end, while my mum washed my sister, considerable more gently, at the other end. The most recent time I saw such a tin bath was in a museum! I remember the outside toilet which was very cold and uncomfortable in winter, and the hard, crackly toilet paper. I remember the excitement when we got our little 12inch black and white telly and then, a little later in the early 60’s, our first mono record player complete with stylus and our first 45 rpm vinyl records. Just for the record, my sister and I purchased “Bobby’s Girl” by Susan Maughan and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez.

I had a happy childhood in those far off vintage days, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with any more of the exciting details. You probably know most of it already now that the 40s,50s and 60s have become so fashionable and popular. Maybe one day, as a real life “vintage” person I’ll be really sought after as an after-dinner speaker, but somehow I doubt it. These days people can find out everything about everything from their lap-tops and smart phones. Maybe I’m destined to have a quiet retirement after-all, thinking nostalgically back to my many “vintage”, real-life memories.

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GOODBYE AND HELLO.

10 Mar

I said goodbye to my father a few weeks ago at the very end of January, 2015. He didn’t speak to me as he was concentrating so much on his breathing but after I had finished, he moved his hand which I took as a sign that he had heard me. My sister and I had just been told that our dad was dying, so it was a sad and sombre last meeting. The phone-call came in the middle of the night telling us that dad had passed away. He was a couple of months beyond 91. Up to the last 2 years he had been in pretty good health. He had a long, good life. I know he was ready for the end when it came. Dad was a lifelong chapel goer and as my cousin put it :”He died in Christian hope.”
Despite his Christian beliefs, dad was very blunt and matter- of- fact about death. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone” he used to say. He sometimes challenged the premise of grieving, almost suggesting that it was a waste of time and emotion. I sometimes thought he sounded a bit harsh but it was typical of his unsentimental, no-nonsense approach to life ( and death), and I respected him for it.
Now dad is the one who has gone. It’s funny that he’s not there anymore sitting with mum in their bungalow, waiting to greet me when I visited them and ready to put the kettle on at a moment’s notice. He’s been an ever- present in my life from birth to retirement and beyond. It seems strange that he is now absent. It’s difficult to realise that I’ll never hear his loud, booming voice again. There is a silence as well as a big gap in my life.
I’ve not always been close to my father. At times, when I became a teenage rebel and then wanted to assert my independence as a young adult, we were even semi-estranged. For many years, the generation-gap was actually a chasm that was difficult to bridge. But bridge it we did. Bit by bit we became closer again. The arrival of my 3 children helped. Dad always enjoyed being a granddad. I have photos of us all out on trips together with dad smiling happily at the camera. We spent some good family times together and the clashes of the past gradually melted away.
My dad was quite a private person and didn’t like talking about his emotions. He was typical of many men of his generation. One wasn’t supposed to cry or talk about one’s inner feelings. It wasn’t the masculine thing to do. I regret not ever having had a deep conversation with him. I tried at times but he usually clammed up or changed the subject. I think he thought that the emotional side of family life was mum’s area of expertise and he didn’t want to trespass on her territory. That’s fair enough – I respect that. It was dad’s prerogative to keep his inner world under wraps. Thus I only ever got to talk to him about everyday matters. We would chat away about the fortunes of the family, the news, sport, holidays, the weather or our jobs. Even after he had retired, dad used to love talking about his time as an engine driver on the railways. I don’t blame him — he did that difficult job, working anti-social hours, for a staggering 47 years! He knew the railways like the back of his hand.
So I’m really sad that dad is no longer in my life. He has been there at almost every significant moment, helping and supporting in his own quiet, unassuming way. As I said in my funeral oration, I have a myriad of memories of my father: whether it was pulling me out of a boating lake when I fell in and nearly drowned, teaching me how to ride a bike, telling me all about life in the Second World War, taking me to school, driving me to college, attending my wedding, helping me decorate the house, or helping me to set myself up in my post-divorce flat. Dad was the continuity man — always there. But now he’s not and I will really miss him, as I’m sure all the family will.
Life goes on as they say. A death always seems to stimulate a flurry of clichés. They are corny but also very useful, as they help to paper over the cracks of loss. People express their condolences and ask me how I feel. What can I say? It’s difficult to express my emotions at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel empty and unable to express myself. One of the most powerful feelings that the death of a loved one brings up is of one’s own inevitable mortality. We’re all going to die even though we don’t often want to think or talk about it. A death and the subsequent funeral, bring these submerged thoughts and emotions to the surface. The passing of my dad has made me feel suddenly a lot older and also, more vulnerable. I am now the eldest male in our direct family. I am the “Godfather” if you like. It’s a sobering thought.
No sooner had I started to come to terms a little bit with the sad loss of my father, than I was recently hit with another significant family event with its accompanying swirl of emotions. My son’s wife gave birth to their first child, a boy. So I am a granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters , the children of my eldest daughter and her partner. Now I am delighted to have a grandson. He made his first appearance in the world just 5 weeks after my dad passed out of it. It’s a pity they didn’t get to meet. I know my dad would have been thrilled to see his latest Great Grandchild. But it wasn’t to be. Time marches on, as does our family. A new addition has now been posted at the bottom of the tree. I hope he lives a long, happy and fulfilling life. Soon my wife and myself will travel down to say hello to the latest arrival. It’s a wonderful development for the family.
I remember when I met my first grandchild and held her in my arms at the hospital. I was thrilled of course but I distinctly recall saying to myself: “Blimey! — I’ve just moved up a generation!” That feeling is doubly reinforced today. The arrival of my grandson so soon after the departure of my father has made me contemplate my position in the family and my place on the family tree. That famous television programme is actually very well named — recent family developments have made me acutely aware of who I think I am. My current feelings about both of the recent events strongly remind me that I am a link in an endless chain of love that passes seamlessly from generation to generation. A loving “goodbye” has been swiftly succeeded by an equally loving “hello.”

NEW YEAR MUSINGS, 2015.

8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!

First Stirrings of Wanderlust.

25 May

I started travelling very early. As a child in the 1950’s I went all round the World, crossing oceans and continents, learning the name of every capital city I encountered and becoming familiar with many a currency. Yes, I admit it, I was an avid stamp collector! I inherited my dad’s bulging stamp album which not only enabled me to wander around the globe but also allowed me to journey into the past. The Germany section for instance, was full of Nazi swastikas and the British part spanned over a century, right back to a proud row of Penny Reds, each displaying Queen Victoria’s head.
Love of travel, or wanderlust, begins in the mind. It’s prompted by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. It’s a constant yearning to move from the known into the unknown — a voyage of discovery. Books, music, TV programmes, films, and in my case, a stamp collection, can bring the wider world into our living rooms. We can all be armchair travellers without the need for passports.
I was lucky because my father worked for British Railways. He was a stoker then an engine driver. So, although we were far from wealthy, our family was able to go on 5 free rail journeys a year and as many third priced trips as we desired. We could roam the entire country, as far as the rail network could take us. The immediate post-war era also saw the introduction of legislation that gave ordinary, working people the right to have a couple of weeks paid holiday every year. Previously, people up to and including the 1930’s never had that right or privilege. Leisure travel had been the preserve of the rich. Thanks to this legislation, we were part of a first wave of families who enjoyed an annual vacation. Our family visited a seaside resort every year — buckets and spades, sand castles, paddling in the sea, jumping the waves, strolling along the promenade, sunbathing in deck chairs, licking ices creams and scoffing fish, chips and mushy peas. It was all recorded on my dad’s trusty Kodak box camera which churned out black and white holiday snaps to go in the album.
On our holidays, we did all the traditional British seaside activities, staying in “boarding houses” ( B and B’s) and later on caravan parks. Probably the most exciting feature of the holiday though was the journey itself. We packed our suitcases and travelled by bus or taxi to the station. There, a steam train would noisily arrive to pluck us off the platform and dramatically whisk us far away from all that was familiar. It was a great adventure, a journey into the unknown. It might seem tame now, but for a child in the fifties, before the age of budget airlines, this train journey to unknown corners of the country, counted as a thrilling experience. It was a definite highlight of the year.
Inevitably, these regular train journeys and my dad’s job as an engine driver, led to me becoming a train spotter. This was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s despite its “nerdy” reputation these days. This led me to yet more travel, both real and vicarious. I went to Doncaster, York, Bristol, Crewe and Carlisle to spot locomotives from different regions. Back at home, as I sat on a grassy bank just outside our local station, my thoughts ran riot with questions. Where was that express heading to? Where had it come from? How long did the journey take? Some trains were given exotic sounding names which further triggered my imagination. As “The Flying Scotsman” raced by, my mind travelled to Scotland, a country I had never visited in real life. What was it like? Did all the men wear kilts and play the bagpipes? What would I find if I was one of the passengers disembarking at Edinburgh Waverley station? Going the other way, speeding south, I imagined stepping out into London, the country’s glamorous capital. Living in the Derbyshire sticks I had no experience of big, bustling cities. My parents didn’t do city breaks, preferring instead the relaxation and bracing air of the coast.
So I got off to a good start in the world of travel. My wanderlust was activated at an early stage. I thank my parents and especially my dad for this. Once I got to school, history and geography lessons increased and intensified my fascination with far away places, in the past and the present. I remember doing a project in primary school, aged 8 or 9, about how a bar of milk chocolate is made. I sent off for information from Cadburys, the Milk Marketing Board and Tate and Lisle. My research took me on a fascinating journey to the British countryside, the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies and the tropical rain forest region of Ghana in West Africa. My appetite was whetted and not just for chocolate!
The most significant cause of my life-long wanderlust however, was probably a negative one. As I entered adolescence I got increasingly frustrated by the backwater status of the town I lived in, and the insularity of many of its people. They seemed content to stay there all their lives, to remain amongst the familiar and not seek out the new. This insularity and lack of adventure seemed to apply to many members of my own family, especially those in the elder generations. I was born in New Whittington, which was just one small part of Chesterfield, a medium sized north midlands town. Numerous relatives on my mum’s side also lived in this tiny geographical area. At one point, several of my relations lived in the same street. Numerous uncles, aunties, cousins, great uncles and great aunts lived within a stone’s throw of my maternal grandparents’ house. They worked in the local mines or in the iron and steel works and seemingly had no pressing reason to move away. It was still the age of the extended family. We all lived in close proximity to each other, in a village atmosphere where everybody knew everybody else. A stranger would have stuck out like a sore thumb. I suppose it was reassuring and comforting to have family members so close. My parents moved out of New Whittington once they acquired their own house. However, they only went about 3 or 4 miles down the road! Even today, they live just a few miles from where they were born.
This perceived lack of adventure frustrated me very much when I was a teenager. It was almost as if we were still living in medieval times when most ordinary folk did not travel more than one day’s walk from their village in their entire lives! ( Unless conscripted to fight and maybe die for the glorification of their monarch in France.) Most people around me were content to stay well within their comfort zones. They seemed happy to stay in the town where they and their parents ( and probably their grandparents) were born, and visit just a small number of “safe” places not too far away. I really appreciated the yearly holidays my parents took me on, but after 15 years or so, I started to tire of the traditional seaside resort. We went to different places: Blackpool, Scarborough, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Weymouth, but they all served up roughly the same ingredients and they gradually all began to merge into one. I was desperate to visit different sorts of places. I wanted to see big cities and to experience moors, hills, lakes and mountains. In the end, our annual seaside holidays were like slipping on a comfortable but restricting strait-jacket. I wanted to go to different types of places and have contrasting experiences.
Most of all, I wanted to visit other countries — all those exotic places just across the English Channel. What was it like to listen to a different language, eat different foods, see different architecture and observe a different life-style? The prospect of travelling abroad was not frightening for me but very exciting.
My parents must have sensed my growing restlessness and frustration because they kindly paid for me to go on a school trip to the south of France. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. Thus it was that at 16 years old, I finally got off this island to discover something of the world beyond. We crossed the channel, travelled to Paris and then took the night train south to Biarritz, in south west France. I was: awe-struck by the mountain scenery of the Pyrenees, fascinated by the pavement cafes, horrified by the Basque version of a bull fight, immersed in the lyrical babble of the French language and had coffee and croissants for breakfast. I ate the biggest, juiciest peaches I had ever seen, saw the strange Basque game of pelote and smelt a lot of garlic.( an alien experience for me in 1966.) It was like a locked door suddenly bursting open and revealing a whole new world beyond. That school trip to France was : exhausting, disorientating and at times, nerve-wracking. But, at the same time, it was full of wonderful surprises, new, exhilarating experiences and fantastic scenery. It dramatically showed me that there was much more to life than my home town of Chesterfield. It revealed the thrill of the new.
Two years later, I saved up my paper-round money to go with a friend to Adriatic Italy. We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Austria by coach. It was a long but memorable journey. I remember waking up in the splendid scenery of the Bavarian Alps and finding I was deaf. The altitude had made my ears pop! It was the beginning of a life time of travelling and exploring, the seeking out of new sights, sounds and experiences. My life-long wanderlust was up and running.

Forgetting.

29 Mar

I’ve always had this fear of dropping out of existence, of going into the void. It’s a fear I share with many other human beings but which we manage to keep secret most of the time. It’s called the fear of death. We don’t like to talk about it or even think of it, but it pops into one’s mind more and more as one gets older. What’s so bad about death? It’s an escape from all the problems and stresses of life. You could see it as everlasting freedom from worry and pain. But it also represents oblivion, a state where you are not conscious of your own existence. It’s when you cease to be. Once your body has perished your only chance of living on is in the minds of others who are still alive. Photos, belongings, writings, songs, and places that represent your shared experiences with them, can all trigger memories. Like a genie from a bottle, a departed person can be conjured back into existence , even if only for a few moments.
It’s strange therefore that some people are so careless with their memories of others. It is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” To forget is to put someone out of one’s mind, to cease to think of him or her. What concerns me is that this forgetting does not only take place after someone has died. We move house or move jobs and suddenly whole hosts of people who were our neighbours, colleagues or even “friends”, drop out of our lives because the regular point of contact is not there anymore. We may make an effort to keep in touch for a while but unless a person is an especially close friend, one we have bonded with, the connection will slowly wither away on the vine if not nourished by regular contact. How many times have you swapped addresses and email details with people who you have met and got on with on holiday, only to never see or have anything to do with them again. People get sucked back into their everyday lives, and if you are not part of that daily world, the danger is that you will be eventually forgotten.
I know I cannot be friends with everyone I meet and like. If my life is an island, there is only room for so many on the shore. Constantly trying to add people will end up with others being forced back into the sea. Time and energy constraints ensure that one will usually end up with a practical, manageable number of friends and acquaintances. (I’m talking about real friends in the flesh, not virtual “friends” on Facebook and other social media.) However, this does not stop me from feeling sad when a connection is dropped and abandoned. I know it sounds dramatic, but to me it is a kind of death. Being pushed out of another’s life is a big step towards being forgotten altogether. It’s sort of being consigned to oblivion. I have always been sensitive about rejection. I’ve been too sensitive, in fact, for my own good. Two or three times in my life I have been “dumped” by women I loved and who I thought loved me. It went from “I love you” and “I’ll always be there for you” to ” I don’t love you anymore” and “I never want to see you again!” It was hard to bear at the time. It was a kind of death. In that woman’s mind I would largely cease to exist. On one of those occasions, after being dropped by a lover, I wrote melodramatically in my diary, that “I felt like a discarded toy left in the corner of the playroom.” One can go from loving and caring about someone intensely, to not even knowing whether that same person is dead or alive. I have found this difficult to cope with but have had to accept this as a hard, realistic part of life. It’s what some people glibly describe as “moving on”, as if people are like places passed through on a long journey.
But death and time are the major reasons why most people are forgotten. They say that within two generations of passing away, in most cases, nobody will remember you. It’s as if your whole life has just been swallowed up into a vacuum and lost in time. At the moment (2014) the British nation is making a special effort to remember those who perished in the First World War. The last combatants from the UK have now all passed into history. I remember the very last British “Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch, finally dying in 2009, aged 111. He was feted because of that war and because he was the final survivor. He had a high profile funeral covered by TV and press. However, what about the millions of other service men and women on all sides who died before him? They lie in well tended but largely forgotten graves or their bodies were never found because they were blown to bits. I recently wandered around a deserted graveyard in mid Northumberland ( Chevington cemetery near Acklington) which contains neat rows of gravestones of airmen who perished in accidents or in combat in the skies over North-East England during the Second World War. All of them were in their twenties. They came from: England, New Zealand, Poland and Australia. In another section were about 6 rows of German graves, again all desperately young men. It was a very poignant experience wandering amongst them, trying to imagine their lives and how they ended. I wonder how many of their present day relatives have their photos displayed on the mantelpiece or their belongings kept safe in a special place? They are now at least 4 generations back. Are they still actively remembered or have they disappeared into the mists of time? My friend Colin, who took me there, has a great interest in military history especially that of the RAF. He read to me from a book which described all the fatal air-crashes in Northumberland during the Battle of Britain. Spitfires accidently clipping each other while on a training flight and plunging into a field. Bombers returning from a mission in thick fog and crashing into a wood, or, in one case, demolishing a church. It was sad to be at the place where these tragedies occurred and to see the grave-stones of those concerned. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, these graves have been visited by those who knew or knew of them. Colin’s book was entitled “Almost Forgotten”. I think, except for a few history buffs and war researchers, we can safely omit the first word from that title.
Coincidentally, the Sunday Times of the previous weekend featured an article headlined : “Lying Cold and Alone.” The writer talked about a huge graveyard on the edge of Berlin- the Neur Garnisionsfriedhof cemetery ( Hope I got that spelling right.). It contained the graves of 7,200 young German soldiers who died in the First World War. The grave- stones were clean, and the grass around them was neatly mown. However the whole place was deserted and not a single flower was laid on any of the ranks of monuments. When the writer mentioned the name of the war cemetery to his Berliner friends, they had never even heard of it! It seems that the First World War is Germany’s forgotten war. Not much is being done to commemorate its centenary compared to the many events being planned in Britain and France. The main reason, apart from the sheer passage of time, is because the horrors subsequently perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War have all but obliterated memories of the earlier conflict. Whatever the reason, the result is the same — all these people are now all but forgotten.
Shocking though it may seem, some people deliberately sabotage the memorabilia of their departed relatives. I recently saw a documentary ( “Hidden Histories — photographs” on BBC 4) which featured a dustman in Sussex who had accumulated a large collection of: photos, letters, medals and other personal documents from soldiers in the 1914-18 war that had simply been thrown away into the trash by the younger generations of their families. He had started his collection in the days before black bin bags so that when he emptied a bin he could clearly see its contents. Shocked by what he saw, he took one box of personal effects back to the house, thinking that the people had thrown its contents out in error. But when they opened the door they were irritated and clearly indicated to him that they wanted rid of the stuff. Maybe I am being over sentimental but I am shocked that precious mementoes of someone’s life can be deliberately consigned to the dust-bin. There again, I have heard several stories of recently deceased people’s belongings being sorted into three piles — stuff to be kept, stuff for the charity shop and stuff for the skip! Although I know one cannot keep everything just for the sake of it and it is important not to live in too much clutter, I still shudder at the thought of my relatives possibly binning my belonging after I’m gone, as if they’re wiping me out of existence. I know I’m being impractical. We cannot expect our surviving relatives to live like Miss Havershams in Great Expectations.
When I was in Vietnam I visited historical houses that contained shrines to the departed. This is because of the religion of ancestor worship. The dead are respected, honoured and remembered on a regular basis. I think this is a lovely tradition. It’s much preferable to throwing their belongings ( and memories of them) into the bin. In a previous blog I have mentioned about writing to leave a sort of legacy. I don’t think that famous politicians like Churchill, Thatcher or Blair should have a monopoly over this sort of thing. The recently departed and much loved ( or hated) Tony Benn has his entertaining and insightful diaries to perpetuate his memory. I write a diary too as well as producing this blog. I have also written my memoirs for what they’re worth!. It’s all ultra-egotistical I know. However I feel compelled to do it because I dread the thought of being forgotten and passing into oblivion. It’s a futile fight against the inevitable. I know I’ll lose. In a TV drama I have just watched ( “In Treatment” ) a character, who had just attended a funeral, commented “In the end there is only silence.” That sounds terrifying but it could also be thought of wonderfully peaceful! The point is that neither emotion is relevant because consciousness for the departed person has stopped. It comforts and consoles me to think there could be an alternative to the frightening finality of the above statement. It would run something like: “In the end there is only memory.” It cheers me to think that I might live on in the minds of others, at least for a while. ( Maybe a couple of generations if I’m lucky.)

Musical memories from the late 60’s to the 70’s – negotiating Glam, metal, prog, Punk and much more.

5 Jan

As the “swinging sixties” drew to a close I found myself long-haired, footloose and fancy-free in the big metropolis of Manchester. It was a far cry from my previous insular life in a “dead-end” north midlands town with my parents. Now at college, training to be a teacher, I could indulge my passion for rock, pop and blues music as much as I wanted. The only restriction was the thickness of my wallet. A student grant didn’t exactly turn me into a millionaire but it was still a big step up from paper-round money. It was a short but wonderful window between the constrictions of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. As the new decade of the 70’s progressed however, my opportunities for unfettered musical indulgence were gradually choked off by, in turn: marriage, a full time teaching job, children and a mortgage. I wanted all these things of course and they greatly deepened and enriched my life ( even the dreaded mortgage), but much of it was at the expense of my music. I no longer had the time, energy, ready cash or opportunity to go to many gigs, keep up with the latest artists or listen to more than a small fraction of the albums on offer. My life developed immensely and very positively in that decade but as far as the balance between my responsibilities and my interests were concerned, the key word was now: “COMPROMISE.” I couldn’t remain a teenager for ever.
But for a time at least I enjoyed those heady, student days in Manchester as the 60’s gave way to the 70’s. My own record collection was still on vinyl as was everyone’s, but now I purchased an extra speaker and listened to the sounds in wondrous stereo. It was great to hear for instance, the lead guitar coming clearly at me from the left and the bass thumping in from the right. Somewhere in the virtual middle was the vocalist, or so it seemed. It was almost like being at a live performance , a big step up from the squashed together, flatter sounds of mono records in the earlier 60’s. My vivid memory is of listening to Deep Purple blasting out of the speakers whilst painting the ceiling of our flat a deep shade of purple! We also, for some strange reason, painted the walls bright orange. ( Possibly while listening to Tangerine Dream!) I pity the poor people who moved in after us!
However I remember Manchester mostly for the excitement of the live gigs at the Free Trade Hall, the University Union on Oxford Road and the UMIST building. One minute I was being seduced by the beautiful folky sounds of Pentangle, Eclection or the Sandy Denny incarnation of Fairport Convention, whilst the next I was being beguiled by the weird but wonderful meanderings of The Incredible String Band. I crowded into sweaty university halls to hear the powerful rock/blues singing of Joe Cocker, Roger Chapman, Julie Driscoll or Arthur Brown, the driving rock of The Nice, or the dreamy psychedelia of Pink Floyd. For the last mentioned gig the hall was so packed that I was squashed uncomfortably up against a wall, hardly able to move a limb. It also got incredibly stuffy. It was like a rock version of the Black Hole of Calcutta. However the next 90 minutes of Floyd music transported me into another world so completely that I was honestly unaware of my discomfort. It was literally an out of body experience. I survived another incredible crush when I went to see the American group Steppenwolf, of “Born to be Wild” fame. ( featured in the cult film “Easy Rider.”) We were all crammed into the hall like sardines in a tin. God knows what would have happened if there had been a fire. The music was loud and thrilling but my clearest memory of that gig is of people fainting all around me and being carried off horizontally. To my shame I did not show much sympathy. My predominant thought was that now I would have more air to breathe and more room to dance to the driving beat. As at many gigs, it was an “every man for himself” situation.
In 1970 I got married and a year later I started full time teaching in a tough, all boys secondary school in Salford. My energy was sapped by the demands of the job and much of my free time was taken up with marking and preparation. The days of “freedom” had come to an abrupt end. I listened to music as a solace and an escape but had little time for concerts or browsing in the record shops.
Over a weekend in May,1972 however, my wife Annie and I attended our first pop festival. The late 60’s festivals at Monterey and Woodstock had already become iconic events — great gatherings of the “hippie” counter-culture which I desperately wanted to have a taste of. Similar gatherings had taken place on the Isle of Wight and in London’s Hyde Park. I had been to a free concert in Hyde Park but had missed out on the Stones, having to make do with The Move instead.( They were good though). But the ’72 festival sounded like the real McCoy for it was going to be headlined by the legendary West Coast group: The Grateful Dead. Support included: Captain Beefheart and his Magic band ( another one of my favourites), The Kinks, Donovan, The Incredible String Band, Pacific Gas and Electric, The Flamin’ Groovies , New Riders of the Purple Sage and many others. It sounded too good to be true and impossible to resist even though I was bogged down with schoolwork. The most amazing thing of all though was that this whole musical extravaganza was to take place in a field on the edge of a depressing mining village near Wigan! I’m talking about the Bickershaw Festival in early May, 1972. I suppose the pit village setting was appropriate for that time as the miners had just won their great victory against the Heath government after causing widespread power cuts and almost bringing the country to its knees. The festival organisers must have been wetting themselves as the strike wore on and May got closer and closer. Luckily it was all done and dusted by early February and so Gerry Garcia and co did not have to resort to a rare acoustic set.
I borrowed a tiny tent from school and we set off for Wigan on the train. The tickets were relatively expensive for the time and I made things worse by losing them, which meant I had to buy them twice! The weather was wet and Annie and I found ourselves pitching our tent on the edge of a grey, muddy field which merged into a reed- filled bog. It was more reminiscent of the Somme in 1916 than of a pop festival in the early 70’s. We listened to some great music that weekend and also got a valuable insight into life in the First World War trenches. It was very apt for a music fan who was also a history teacher. At first we really enjoyed the music and the festival atmosphere but as the rain began to fall again, it became a bit of an ordeal. Unfortunately, the tent let water in! We got cold and damp and started to feel a bit sorry for ourselves. The toilets were just circular trenches covered with tents and as the weekend progressed the smell became more and more odious and the edge of the trench caved in, thus becoming increasingly treacherous. The queue for the pub toilet in the village was permanently half a mile long, so impossible to contemplate.
The music was very good though and did a lot to raise our spirits. It went on late into the night as the organisers got more and more behind schedule. In fact the last of the Saturday night acts didn’t come on until 6 o’clock Sunday morning! We retreated into the leaky tent for a cold and fitful sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to hear very strange sounds coming from the stage. What happened next has lived long in my memory and I wrote about it to UNCUT magazine in 2007, when they were printing readers’ memories of Bickershaw. ” The scene that greeted me as I emerged, bleary-eyed from the tent, was totally surreal. The whole field seemed to be shrouded in mist. Bedraggled people, carrying fire-torches and draped in blankets, were wandering around in a daze. And in the background, came the bizarre electronic dronings of the Magic Band. It was a scene straight from Hell! Then the Devil himself, the Captain, in a flowing dark cloak, swept on to the stage to hollor his way through an amazing, otherworldly set of electronically charged swamp-blues. This was easily one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.”
That experience was utterly fantastic, but as Sunday – the day of the Dead- dawned, reality hit big time. We were cold, wet, miserable and increasingly desperate for a proper loo. So we never got to see The Dead and my guitar hero, Gerry Garcia. As they flew in we bussed out and ultimately experienced an incredible “Relief of Mafeking” moment at Wigan Railway Station toilets. Could we have reached an equal high listening to five hours of the Dead’s improvisational brilliance? Probably, but our bladders would not have held out and the whole thing eventually finished so late that we would have been very late home and totally wiped out for work the next morning. It was an early example of the realities and responsibilities of our new working lives curtailing the freedoms that we had enjoyed in our student days.
Later that year I got a new job in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire which put us within striking distance of the gig Mecca of London. I could now attend top shows at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, the Royal Festival Hall and later, the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember taking school trips to see Thin Lizzy, Suzi Quatro and Slade ( not my favourites but still a good outing.) I also saw Stevie Winwood’s Traffic at the Rainbow as well as King Crimson. The most memorable show at the Hammersmith was Santana ( brilliant extended guitar solos) supported by Earth, Wind and Fire. However, the biggest treat of all was seeing the incredible Captain Beefheart again, this time at the Mecca ballroom in Stevenage, just 10 minutes walk from our house. I felt a bit of a fraud as the first people I met in the queue had travelled from Amsterdam to see the Captain. The show was mind-blowing. I got so close to the group in the small dance hall that I became completely immersed in the throbbing music, as it swirled all around me.
In 1973 my daughter Joanna was born. I loved being a father but naturally, opportunities to go to gigs now became fewer and far between. Annie however, kindly encouraged me to join friends at the Knebworth Festival in, I think, 1974. Again I felt a bit sheepish as people had travelled from all corners of the country to be there but I only had to go on a very short local train ride from Stevenage. My friends has camped overnight and kindly saved me a prime spot only about 6 rows from the stage. In one incredible, sunny day I was fortunate enough to see performances by : the great Tim Buckley, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Van Morrison, The Maravishnu Orchestra, The Doobie Brothers and the fantastic, boogieing Allman Brothers. What a fabulous line up it was and all introduced by John Peel. It finally finished about 1 o’clock in the morning. Yes, Knebworth was a definite high spot of the 70’s but most of my everyday life was taken up by teaching and enjoying being a husband and father.
At home I preferred listening to the subtle, sensitive offerings of singer songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn and Buffy St Marie rather than the increasingly loud, excessive hard rock sounds of Led Zeppelin or so called prog- rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I considered such bands too obvious and pretentious but I was in a definite minority as they were incredibly popular. I preferred what I considered to be more subtle and sophisticated offerings from American groups such as: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Steely Dan and the southern blues of Little Feat. I never got on to the Zeppelin band wagon regarding them as unsubtle and over the top — the forerunners of the heavy metal scene which I think of as the musical equivalent of banging one’s head constantly against a brick wall. I think they were very lucky to be able to fill the heavy- rock vacuum left by the break up of Cream.
I visited friends who had whole stacks of Genesis and/or Yes albums which I quite liked to listen to but always suspected they were trying to be too clever and thought a bit too much of themselves. They would try to take the listener on mythical quests full of Arthurian knights and pre-Raphaelite maidens. It all got a bit much. I felt much the same about Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barret. They lost a lot of their fun, quirkiness and edge, in my opinion, disappearing more and more up their own backsides. If I had a pound for every time I had to listen to “Dark Side of the Moon” at dinner parties in the 70’s, then I’d be a multi-millionaire now. I think it’s quite a good album but I always hung back from liking it wholeheartedly because of the thought that they were taking themselves a bit too seriously. Some of the prog-rock music was good but as the decade progressed, I felt it all got too ambitious, too extravagant and started to drown in its own excess. The Electric Light Orchestra for example took to arriving and departing from the stage in a huge, mock flying saucer. There seemed to be more emphasis on the spectacle than on the music, as well as making them more remote from their fans. Although I hated the “mindless” thrashings of Punk when it exploded on to the scene in the late 70’s, I admit it was much needed as it swept aside much of the self-indulgent pomposity of later prog-rock.
I still tuned into Top of the Pops for a laugh and to catch up with the latest teenage trends, but I mostly ignored the singles charts and the various crazes that they spawned. I didn’t get into Glam Rock ( or Glitter Rock), mostly bypassing T Rex, Slade, Sweet and the now disgraced Gary Glitter. However, I did take a passing interest in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase and very much liked Roxy Music. To be fair Bowie and Roxy were only allied to glam/glitter rock in a visual sense, being far superior musically. Apart from in the supermarket at Christmas, who ever listens to Slade now? I didn’t buy any singles. The catchy kitsch of Abba was OK on the radio but I couldn’t stand more than 3 minutes of it at a time. later, in the 90’s I went to an Abba theme party. It was pretty grim! I liked Rod Stewart at first, both with and without The Faces but then he went increasingly middle of the road, ending up as a gross parody of himself. Another big act of the 70’s – Queen — I found overblown, obvious and intensely irritating. Their number 1 hit: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is regularly voted as the greatest single of all time but to me it was sheer torture especially as it seemed to be crudely caricaturing the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys’ exquisite operatic classics: “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”. Once again I was content to swim against the musical tide. I was happy to listen to albums by artists who hardly ever featured in the charts. Bob Dylan made some great albums in the 70’s, especially “Blood on the Tracks”. Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Lou Reed and Neil Young all produced wonderful solo albums as did the aforementioned Joni Mitchell. Post Beatles John Lennon put out a stark, stripped down but emotionally charged album with the Plastic Ono Band which appealed me a lot more than any of the more commercial musical journeys that Paul McCartney took us on with “Wings.” I quite like Elton John but he never grabbed me enough to make me actually want to shell out money for one of his big selling albums.
One rare example of me following the majority was my liking of Fleetwood Mac, both in their earlier Peter Green British blues phase and in their later Nicks and Buckingham inspired AOR. I really liked their eponymous 1975 album and it’s classic 1977 follow up “Rumours” They are smooth, slick and commercial but I love them. Another feature of my 70’s musical journey was venturing more and more into country rock led by the Byrds, Dylan and the Dead. Previously I had loathed the corny, sugary sentimentality of Country and Western music but now, once it was fused with rock I grew to really like it and recognise its place in rock history from Elvis onwards.
Then in the later 70’s there were: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, Blondie, Gerry Rafferty ( Baker Street being one of my favourite tracks), Joan Armatrading, and the quirky but hugely enjoyable Ian Dury, with his Blockheads. I also loved the guitar based pop/rock of Mark Knoppler’s Dire Straits. I even got to like some of the Punk stuff especially Hugh Cornwall’s Stranglers. I’ve always hated the Sex Pistols though — a triumph of noise over musicianship. I suppose this shows that I was now a member of an older generation who disapproved of much of what the new kids on the block were listening to. It’s an inevitable consequence of growing older. I was one of those who sympathised with Bill Grundy who tried to interview the Pistols but ended up being verbally abused. At least Mick Jagger was always polite and well spoken when asked questions.
Despite job pressures and the arrival of our second child Catherine in 76’s, I still found time to enjoy a whole range of music. I tried to move on and discover new artists. I did not want to stay fossilised in the 1960’s. Our move to Sheffield restricted the number of live gigs I could go to — I only remember one great show by Nils Lofgren at the City Hall. However I spent many a happy hour listening to music at home either with the family, or, late at night when I retreated into my headphones. Both Joanna and Catherine remember growing up in a house full of music as did Ian, born in 1981. What other explanation is there for my daughter, born in 1976, liking Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention” or my son recently taking me to a David Byrne ( Talking Heads) concert? Pop and rock music provided not just the soundtrack of my life but also for the whole family.
When we moved up to Tyneside in 1979 we put ourselves in pole position for many great gigs together at the Newcastle City Hall, St James’s park, Gateshead Stadium, etc. As the children grew up my music going revived and increased — but unlike in the 1960’s, it was now very much a family affair.

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 café. 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.”