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The Magic of Singing.

22 Jul

It was a day of tedious jobs — clearing out cupboards, combing through files, trecking to the charity shop with boxes of unwanted books and bric a brac. It was a day to get over with only the satisfaction of clean, tidy cupboards to reward us. Then we came across the mystery DVD. What could it be? I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. On it was written “Singing Our Hearts Out” by Heaton Voices. It was dated 2006. Heaton is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne, a city I used to live in or near for 27 years. In fact 2006 was the year I left to move down to my present abode in Cleveland. Heaton Voices is an excellent community choir I was fortunate enough to be a member of  for 6 happy years. I had forgotten all about this DVD, which was a recording of a programme made for Community TV. It was about the choir, its members and its involvement in the National Street Choirs festival held that year at Sage Gateshead. Suddenly, the cupboards and the jobs could wait and I was transported back 13 years, remembering all the songs I used to sing and all the lovely people I sang them with. Watching that DVD brought a lump to my throat.

Choirs have been an important part of my life ever since 1989. It was a choir that dragged me up from the pits of despair as I struggled to cope with the emotional fall out of a difficult divorce.  Previously, most of my life had been centred on family and work. I still had my teaching work of course, but day to day contact with my 3 children had gone and at weekends and holidays I often felt cut adrift. Time hung heavy and self pity was never far away. Many things and numerous people helped me to recover from that very low ebb but it was a choir that played a particularly crucial role. One summer weekend, I had arranged to go with a friend to a festival at Druridge Bay, a beauty spot on the Northumberland coast. The festival had been organised by Friends of the Earth to raise awareness of the threat to the bay from a planned nuclear power station. I had been heavily involved in anti-nuclear campaigning throughout the 1980’s, so I was completely up for this one. When we arrived there were the usual variety of stalls and in the middle of them, a big marquee. From it drifted interesting sounding music. It was a choir singing acappella style in 4 part harmony. Intrigued, I went in to listen. It was the Caedmon Choir from Gateshead. As I sat down they were singing a piece about the potential price of nuclear- generated electricity. It talked of the horrific consequences of a nuclear accident. ( Chernobyl was not far into the past.) The song built up to a thrilling, intense climax. I was hooked. This is what I could do to help rid myself of that lingering, post-divorce malaise.It would tap into 2 of my main interests — music and political activism.

Up to that point I had associated choirs with church. Both my parents had sung in church choirs for most of their lives. My maternal grand-father had been a choir leader, organist and composer of hymns at the local Methodist chapel. He had also given me piano lessons and so had helped to generate my lifelong love of music. However in my teenage rebel days I had got into pop and rock music in a big way and I associated choirs with the older generation and with boredom. How wrong I was! I needed to do a lot of growing up before I could fully appreciate what a wonderful thing a choir is.

On the Tuesday evening after the weekend festival, I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall on public transport. I didn’t have a car at that point, and had to catch 2 buses from my home in Wallsend. It was an awkward journey and I could easily have not bothered, but I was determined to go, even though it was work next morning. I didn’t want to spend another evening moping and marking. I didn’t know Gateshead, the small city that sits across the Tyne from Newcastle, but I eventually found my way and entered a hall full of strangers, sitting on chairs arranged in semi-circles. Caedmon was an Anglo-Saxon monk who was supposed to have been given the gift of song by God in about the 8th or 9th century. His musical legacy is claimed by both Gateshead and Whitby, a seaside town in North Yorkshire, near where I now live. I have never got to the bottom of where Caedmon actually lived , if indeed he existed at all. I don’t think people moved around very much in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Maybe he got “transferred” from one monastery to another like a modern day footballer changing clubs. Anyway, here I was in the Caedmon Hall on a Tuesday night. It was a good evening. I enjoyed the singing and a few people smiled and welcomed me to the choir. Choirs are always glad to see a man walk through the door, as many seem to be perpetually short of tenors and basses. Women seem to be much more open-minded and adventurous than men, willing to try new things away from the pub and the telly.  Most activities I have got involved in, from singing to yoga, from English literature to learning a language, seem to consist of at least three-quarters women and only a quarter men, if that.

As I sat there on my first evening as a chorister, belting out the bass parts, I became aware that I was picking up the baton from my father and  my grandfather before him. Bass singing has been a family tradition. ( My mum, aunties and a female cousin, also did their bit for the sopranos and altos.)  I remembered my Grandad Thomas’s deep, powerful voice reverberating round the chapel on a Sunday evening. I remembered Uncle Ernie ( my mum’s cousin) roaring out the stirring chorus of the Sheffield carol “Diadem” at our Sunday School anniversary — “Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him — Crown Him Lord of all!” Another uncle, my mum’s brother, had sung the bass solo parts in productions such as the Messiah.  And of course I remembered my dad powerfully vocalising the bass lines of traditional Christmas carols like ” O Come All Ye Faithful”. All this now welled up inside me as I sang in my first choir. It was a very satisfying experience! Recently. I have been very proud and pleased to hear that one of my daughters has joined one choir and set up another in her home city of  Leeds. She has always been musical and is now continuing what has been a strong, family tradition for at least a century.

I spent many happy years as a member of the Gateshead Caedmon Choir. Some friends were highly amused when I told them, as they misheard it as the “Caveman Choir.” It was and still is, a community choir. Anybody could join irrespective of age, gender or musical ability. There were no auditions. The only restriction on numbers was the size of the hall. We averaged between 20 and 40 members but I believe numbers have recently swelled due to the popularity of choir documentaries such as those presented by Gareth Malone. The choir contained people of all ages and many types. We had a jovial West Indian who was often well lubricted by rum. We had a down and out man who tied up his shabby trousers with rope. We had gays and straights, not that sexuality has anything to do with singing, in my opinion. We had students and retirees. OK, I admit, it included many middle aged and middle class people but there was still quite a variety. The music brought us together and gelled us into one big, happy family.

When I joined, Caedmon Choir, Gateshead had an inspirational leader : Sandra Kerr. I’m sure she won’t mind me name dropping her. She was a talented performer, composer and teacher, and became particularly famous when she composed the music of the children’s TV series “Bagpuss.” She was a hard task-master and set high standards, but her infectious enthusiasm and expert teaching skills drove us to musical heights that we had never dreamt of achieving. We performed all sorts of music — folk, pop, classical, gospel, religious. Sometimes original songs were composed and arranged for us. Joining that choir put me on a steep learning curve and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Since giving up the piano lessons in my mid teens, my musical development had been pretty spasmodic, as other things rushed in.  I had performed in a Hertfordshire school production of The Mikado when the pupil I was understudying dropped out. That was a brilliant experience but was a one off, which was just as well as my acting was rather wooden .( think Roger Moore). I had also sung with gusto the Yorkshire versions of traditional carols to a brass accompaniment in Sheffield pubs when I lived there. But now, at last, I had the time and inclination to build more consistenly on these musical foundations. Later I moved on to Heaton Voices under the excellent leadership of Richard Scott. Heaton was much closer to my home and I felt I needed the stimulus of a new musical environment. It certainly worked — I enjoyed over 6 exhilerating years there before I moved to Cleveland. The musical directors of my subsequent choirs in Whitby and Middlesbrough have also been great and have extended my skills and repertoire considerably.

The thing about singing is that it is so enjoyable. It lightens the spirit. Sometimes I would turn up at choir full of worries and problems. On such evenings I had seriously considered not going in at all. But by the end of a 2 hour sing I felt like a different person altogether. My low mood had been dispelled and I felt happy and glad to be alive. One of my fellow choristers in Heaton Voices, described on the DVD how she felt light-headed after a choir session, almost as if she was on drugs. She pondered whether it was safe for her to drive home. I have felt the same. Singing is the one sure way of dispelling the clouds and letting the sunshine back in. Listening to music is wonderful and performing it, if anything, is even better.

Choirs are much than just the music of course. They are about people. As outlined above, they are from all walks of life, all abilities, all ages and all shapes and sizes. The best choirs are also non-judgemental, although I acknowledge that this not so attractive human trait has occasionally reared its ugly head. Choirs are groups of people and sometimes there are personality clashes and differences of opinion. It comes with the territory as they say. However, it’s mostly the music and the choir’s common purpose in making it, that wins out. In Caedmon Choir, Heaton Voices, Whitby Communiy Choir and Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir ( my current choir), I have met and am still meeting lots of lovely, interesting people. I have made friends for life from all these singing groups. Many choir members don’t just turn up and sing once a week. They develop a social life, they invite each other to parties, they go away for the weekend and even go on holidays together. All these things have happened to me and have been a major part of my social life over the years. From the choirs I have met friends, walking partners, squash partners and gig and concert going companions. On the DVD is featured a choir member’s 40th birthday gathering with lots of chatting, eating, laughing and semi-drunken singing. On some youth hostelling weekends I have laughed so much that it has hurt. I have taken part in ceilidh dancing, story telling evenings, fun quizzes, clumsy and slightly dangerous sword dancing and any number of crazy party games. It certainly beats staying in and feeling miserable with life.

Choirs have also got me to many interesting places. I took part in the annual National Street Choirs festival for many years with 3 of the choirs I belonged to. We found ourselves singing in shopping centres, churches, concert halls, parks, street corners and town squares in places  as far apart as Brighton, Newcastle upon Tyne and Aberystwyth,  We sang in big cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester and in little towns like Hebdon Bridge, Saltaire and Belper. The feeling of warmth and camaraderie as hundreds of singers join together is incredible and empowering. All the choirs I have been lucky enough to be in have also done valuable charity work, collecting for a variety of good causes especially at Christmas. My present choir at Middlesbrough Town Hall is particularly involved with supporting homeless people and asylum seekers. In fact we have a young Nigerian woman and her son in our choir and she has taught us some great songs. I have sung with people from France, Germany, Ghana, Congo and Iran.

In this age of international argument and conflict with President Trump’s  divisive policies and the British Brexit vote creating barriers between people, I think it is even more important for music to build bridges between nations. At the height of the dispute between Russia and the United Kingdom over the shocking Salisbury poisonings, some choir friends and I went to listen to a Russian Orchestra performing pieces by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at Middlesbrough’s Victorian Town Hall. It was a tremendous evening and the applause was thunderous. Music had brought people from 2 disputing nations together. Music destroys barriers and builds bridges.

Music has certainly helped me to turn my life around and ensure that I have a rich and rewarding social life. Last month I was singing in Ripon’s wondrous cathedral, as part of their summer lunchtime concerts programme. One our choir leaders, Dave, is the chief lay tenor in that cathedral’s choir. It was a privilege to sing in such a magnificent building with it’s amazing acoustics. Tonight I’ll be performing with Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir a programme that ranges from: medieval religious music sung in Latin to Bon Jovi’s ” Livin’ on a Prayer” the 1980s rock anthem. ( not my favourite but fun to perform) There will be nearly a hundred of us, the biggest choir I have ever been in. I am nervous but it will be great, and at the end, when the applause hopefully rings out and with the adrenaline pumping, I will feel on top of the world. If you want to have an inkling of how Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger feel, join a performing choir!

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A Eulogy for my Mum: Jessie Bates (1926 to 2017.)

15 Oct

My sister Gl—- , my brother Gr—- and I would like to thank you all for coming today to remember and celebrate the life of our lovely mum, Jessie Bates. As I’m sure you will agree, she was a quiet, caring and gentle person. There wasn’t a bad bone in her body. To us, she was the ideal mother– an endless source of unconditional love. Mum supported us in everything we did as children and as adults. She always provided a shoulder to cry on, or a patient, attentive listening ear. No problem was too big or too small for her to help us with. She, along with our dear departed dad, was ever present in our lives. Jessie supported us in the bad times and celebrated with us in the good times.

I remember mum looking after my 3 year old daughter J—– when my other daughter C——– was born and my wife was in hospital. There was no such thing as paternity leave in 1976! Gr—- told me that his mum was there for him when he was having a rough time at college. He remembers her as being a very good listener, always sympathetic and understanding. Gl—- remembers mum and dad helping set up her hotel business in Skegness. Jessie even organised groups from chapel to stay at the hotel in the off season. The visits went so well that they went on for 10 years or more. Gl—- and I both remember mum being quietly supportive throughout our divorces.

Jessie’s own marriage to Maurice was very long and successful. They were inseparable for nearly 68 years. It led to a whole new family tree of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. For most of her adult life, mum was not Jessie, but half of a well-known local double-act known as Maurice and Jessie. Their two names were invariably uttered in the same breath. They were a team and a very successful, enduring partnership. Our family history is strewn with special events as Maurice and Jessie reached milestone after milestone. Invariably, there celebrations were held at the local Methodist Chapel.

The church provided structure for Jessie’s life. She was christened there, got married there and celebrated most special occasions there. Christianity gave Jessie the tools to lead a good, wholesome and fulfilling life. She supported numerous charities and always encouraged us to help others. I remember selling the “Sunny Smiles” picture booklets to raise money for young people in the National Children’s Homes. Mum encouraged us to pester friends, neighbours and family to sell as many as possible. Mum’s Christian faith was important to her. It gave her hope and a firm belief that she would pass on to a better world, once she had left this one. Jessie’s faith gave her life a strong foundation.

I don’t want to give the impression that my mum was always a serious person. She liked to laugh and had a quiet sense of humour. She often had a twinkle in her eye and there was always a little spark to her personality. Jessie could see the funny side of things. Whenever Jessie was given the Derbyshire Times ( the local paper), she would turn straight away to the obituaries. After perusing them for a few minutes, she would declare: “Well, I’m not in again this week, so I must still be here!” Even in the latter stages of her life, when she was suffering from dementia, mum would often indulge in gentle rounds of banter with the carers who came to visit her.

Jessie was not adventurous. She usually played safe and never travelled very far. Maurice said that a nasty bout of sea-sickness on a boat trip around Scarborough Bay put paid to any idea of sailing across to explore the continent beyond these shores. Jessie’s idea of an overseas journey was crossing the Solent to the Isle of Wight, a place she loved to visit. She never flew in an aeroplane or had any wish to. Buying her a parachute jump for her birthday would have been a complete waste of money! She was content to stay on terra- firma. She stayed in England with occasional, brief sorties into Scotland or Wales. Jessie was happy to grow deep roots in Chesterfield, a town she lived in for her entire life. Her last home in Staveley-Middlecroft was only 4 or 5 miles from her first home, in the New Whittington area of Chesterfield. On one sense, you could drive Jessie’s entire life in 15 minutes! Staying in one place meant that Jessie got to know lots of local people very well, and they got to know her.

My mum was a very accepting person. She accepted her lot in life. Like many of her generation, she was quite deferential. If the Queen had walked into the room, she would automatically have curtsied. She did not complain or get angry. She didn’t blame others.  Mum was not a rebel. She always tried to fit in and not make a fuss. She was quiet and unassuming. I think Jessie took life mostly in her stride despite its ups and downs. I think she had an inner calm.

Jessie’s last months were spent quietly in her house being looked after by family and carers. Maurice died two and a half years before also at the age of 91. So she was a widow. It must have been sad and difficult for her at times. I recently read a memorial  on a public seat which said: ” Your legacy is all the people you have touched in your life.” Jessie led a quiet, low-key life but touched many people. She was humble and didn’t think of herself as particularly important. But from another perspective, Jessie’s life was rich and fulfilling. It was rich in family relationships, rich in friendships, rich in kindness, charity and compassion. I will really miss her and I’m sure you will too. Thank you.

NB — Delivered at the funeral service at Inkersall Methodist Church, near Chesterfield on Friday, October 13th, 2017. Jessie Bates died peacefully in hospital on September 24th, 2017. She was 91 years and 2 months.

 

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.

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.)