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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Downtown


Petula Clark: Downtown

A super singalong on BBC Four on Friday! 

It Started with a Kiss – or rather it started for us with a bottle of Chilean Shiraz followed by a fabulous edition of Top Of The Pops 1982, from 15th July, which began with Errol and Hot Chocolate and their famous song. After several weeks of having to contend with the constipated singing faces of Brian Ferry and Martin Fry (get the look!), it was great to have some good tunes for a change. Errol was followed by, among others, Dexy’s Come On Eileen, the perennial Cliff Richard, David Essex’s Night Clubbing and Irene Cara’s Fame (although I have never quite understood the line in that song about qualifying for a pilots licence).

Later, there was a recorded concert with the now 83 year old Petula Clark who has recorded a new LP. Goodness, she is even more perennial than Cliff Richard. My great grandfather used to like her, and he died in 1960. Her voice is a bit thin now, but the music and band were superb. She kept us waiting for her ultimate singalong song but it duly arrived near the end. I then blotted my copy book by reprising our own version of the lyrics from twenty years ago. It went something like this.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s snoring beside you
You can always go, downstairs
When you are cold and Mummy’s got all the duvet
There’s a place I know, downstairs
You can lie down on the settee, and turn on the fire
Youll be warm and quiet, it’s all that you desire
How can you lose?
The night is much kinder there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
And go downstairs
Sleeping on the settee, downstairs
Sleeping so peacefully
Everything’s waiting for you.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s been eating garlic
There’s a place to go, downstairs
Onions and curry, chilli, tikka masala
Seems to help I know, downstairs
You can open all the windows and the air is clear and nice
Fill your lungs with freshness, its free of herbs and spice
How can you lose?
The night is much cleaner there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
And go downstairs
Have a weak cup of tea, downstairs
Mild crackers or toast for me, downstairs
Everything’s waiting for you.

I was lucky not to end up on the settee again that night.  

Sunday, 23 October 2016

One Man’s Week 1974

This was written after reading One Man’s Week in the London Sunday Times. The contributors were always authors, artists, musicians, humourists, television personalities and so on, all of whom led wildly exciting daily lives. As its name suggests, there were never any female correspondents. This particular week the column was by a well-known writer, presenter of television arts programmes and professional Northerner who, frankly, I was sick of seeing and reading about. This was my reaction. Perhaps it exaggerates my lack of direction, hopelessness and want of stimulation at the time, but not by much.

One Man’s Week by Tasker Dunham who works in an office in Leeds


Sunday


Thank goodness it’s Sunday. Staying with Parents for the weekend, I pick up their Sunday Times and come across One Man’s Week. As usual it is by some irritating celebrity who leads a full and exciting life, has an interesting, creative job and mixes with sparklingly famous and admired people. Why don’t they get someone who does nothing, goes nowhere and knows no one, someone with a boring and hated job, someone like me?

Dreading the impending working week, I sit unoccupied for the rest of the day until it is time to return to my bedsit. Parents wave goodbye from the doorstep and after an hour in my blue Mini I am in my room in Leeds. It is cold, lonely, empty, and the bulb has gone. Must get a new one. I greet my four little fish: they don’t exactly come bounding up to welcome me.

I switch on the television for half an hour before bed time. The picture flickers on. It’s him again: the One Man’s Week columnist. I turn it off and go to bed. Why can’t I have a job like his?

Monday


8:15 Eyes open. Radio on. I’ve got to go to work. Must get up. I’ll just have another five minutes.

8:20 Groan! I really ought to get moving, but another five minutes won’t matter.

This continues until 8:45 when a feeble John Timpson joke on the radio gets me up.

At 9.15 I arrive at work. Napoleon, the boss, looks at his watch disapprovingly with raised eyebrows. He says nothing. He is busy working frenetically in his shirtsleeves behind his glass partition. I try to look productive with thoughts miles away. I make a mental note to be on time tomorrow.

Lunchtime arrives. There must be something wrong when the most enjoyable part of the day is going to the shop for a lunchtime sandwich. And they’re so expensive! I must start to make my own.

Tuesday


It must be terrible to work in London where the journey to work might take two hours. I can do it in ten minutes, yet I still can’t make it on time. I set off at nine and arrive ten minutes late. Napoleon looks at his watch disapprovingly with raised eyebrows. He is still working frenetically in his shirtsleeves behind his glass partition. Has he been home at all? I genuinely resolve to arrive on time tomorrow.

At lunchtime I return a pile of books to the library, all unread, and have to pay twenty pence in fines. It’s quite reasonable really. Browsing round the shelves I spot a name on a row of novels. Hell! It’s him again: One Man’s Week. Not only television programmes; he writes novels as well. I borrow them all hoping to find the secret of his success.

In the evening I don’t get round to reading them. I am too exhausted after work and have not yet replaced the light bulb. There must be something wrong with me. I’m always tired, I have lots of headaches, I never feel well. I need to visit the doctor.

Wednesday


Today I am not going to be late for work. I spring out of bed at 6.15. I spring back in at 6.20.

I wake up again at 9.30. That can’t be right. Oh dear! 9.30. It is right. I walk to the phone box and tell Napoleon I will be in late on account of having run over a dog on the way to work. I arrive sheepishly at 10.30. Napoleon calls me in and I bleat out my excuse once more, with embellishments. I look disapprovingly at my watch with raised eyebrows.

“Must get on,” I say, retreating.

When lunchtime arrives I reflect that I am still not making my own sandwiches. At least I remember to buy a new light bulb. It gives me a deep sense of accomplishment. 

Back home the fish regard my presence with less enthusiasm than ever. Their tank probably needs cleaning out. Indeed, it smells a bit and there seem only to be three of them now. The other appears to have turned into a transparent husk glistening at the bottom with a kind of wriggling, leechy thing attached. I make a mental note to deal with it.

I pick up one of that man’s books but reading is difficult because the new bulb is too dim. I become lost in thoughts about changing vocation. I decide I am definitely in the wrong job. I will go for occupational guidance to see what they say. Blast! I forgot to make an appointment to see the doctor.

Thursday


8.30 Why should I have to do this job? Why should I, a person of my considerable intelligence and ability, have to carry out such mind-numbing, menial tasks? Why do I put up with work so beneath my capabilities? I’m not going in. I am definitely not going in. That’s that. I will phone and say I’m ill.

I feel so guilty I remain bedbound until 2.00 as if authentically ill. I stay in bed so long that hunger and headache make me feel truly ill.

Friday


I arrive at work five minutes early but Napoleon has gone to a meeting in London for the day. People ask after my state of health. I explain that I had migraine and stomach ache and was unable to phone in. Well, it’s true. I really was ill.

Conscientious people like me enjoy their jobs. If on a particular day they cannot face work, there must be something wrong: they must be ill. Staying home is the sensible course of action.

I am still not making my own sandwiches. It does not matter today as Friday is liquid lunch day, the end of the firm’s unofficial four and a half day week.

The car sounds a bit rough but I drive back to Parents, to cooked meals, clean rooms and country air. Not for the first time I am told I ought to pull myself together, find a wife and be properly looked after. There might be something in that.

Tomorrow I will read one of that man’s books, service the car, get a brighter bulb, buy food for next week....

Saturday


Instead I stay in bed all morning and then watch wrestling on television. I must make an effort to get things done.

Right! Starting from next week I will make my own sandwiches, read that man’s books, sort out the fish, get a brighter bulb, tidy my room, service the car, go to the doctors, arrive at work on time, seek occupational guidance.....

Thank heavens it’s the weekend.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Man With The Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible

My father was always puzzled by a strange teenage memory. In 1937 he went with his parents to visit distant relatives at Boston in Lincolnshire. In one house, an elderly Jew was sitting at a high desk in skull cap and prayer shawl reading a Hebrew bible, his finger tracing the curious lettering right to left across the page. Who could this have been? My father was never aware of any Jewish relatives. He began to wonder whether he had imagined the whole thing. The truth, when it emerged, is like a tale from Dickens.

Years later, after his parents were gone and there was no one left to ask, the image kept returning to bother him like a recurring dream. He wished he had paid more attention, except you don’t when you are sixteen, or even when you are thirty-three or forty, his ages when his mother and father died. He struggled to reconstruct the event: the one-day railway excursion from Goole; meeting his mother’s cousin, Lucy Mann, who gave them dinner (i.e. lunch); climbing the three hundred and sixty five steps to the top of Boston Stump with his father (i.e. Boston St. Botolph, the tallest church tower in England). But the man with the Hebrew bible remained a mystery.

LNER Rail Excursions 1937
The Hull Daily Mail, 1937
Much of the story made sense. Railway excursions were very popular in the nineteen-thirties before the days of mass car ownership. They ran to destinations far and wide from every major town and city. The London and North Eastern Railway advertised numerous trips from Hull and Goole in 1937, including several to Boston. One such excursion, for a fare of four shillings and nine pence (24p in new money), left Goole at 10.50 a.m. on Sunday 7th November and would have arrived in Boston before one in the afternoon. Presumably they spent the afternoon there and returned that evening.

On the way home, my grandfather, amused by what they had seen, began to tease my grandmother about her distant relative. It was still unusual for people from a small Yorkshire town to encounter other religions or ethnicities, even for those who had seen service abroad during the First World War. It was cause enough for suspicion to be Roman Catholic, or sometimes Methodist. “Well, you kept quiet about that all these years, didn’t you!” he mocked. “I didn’t realise I’d married a Hebrew!”

My grandmother’s cousin, Lucy Mann, is also no mystery. The two cousins had spent the First World War together in service as shop assistants at Southport in Lancashire. They had a common bond: the childhood loss of a parent. Lucy’s father had died of heart disease in 1893 when she was two, and my grandmother’s mother of kidney disease in 1910 when she was fourteen. Lucy can be found in my grandparents’ wedding photographs in 1919. They remained in touch for the rest of their lives.  

But who was the man with the Hebrew bible? My father gradually came round to thinking he could have been married to one of his mother’s aunts. We looked for clues in the snippets of family history I traced, but to no avail. None of the twelve aunts we found fitted the bill.

The truth came to light only after my father had died. It was the result of a set of events that would never occur today – like a nineteenth century Dickensian tale, convoluted as a Catherine Cookson saga.

It begins in the eighteen-fifties. My grandmother’s maternal family lived in a hamlet called Amber Hill in the Boston fens: an expanse of low lying farmland to the west of The Wash in South Lincolnshire. It is a bleak, wet landscape of isolated villages surrounded by field after field of crops. But for a network of deep drains and pumping stations originally powered by windmills, it would quickly turn back into marshland. You could imagine it as Holland; in fact one fen is actually named Holland Fen. Families were large, and the children went on to have large families themselves. Work on the land was hard and death came early and often.

My grandmother’s mother was one of at least twelve siblings. The two eldest, both girls, married the same man, the elder sister having died at the age of twenty. Between them they had fourteen children with the surname Sellars. One, Thomas Sellars, moved north to the town of Goole, then a booming port in Yorkshire. It promised a kinder life than on the land, with plentiful work on the docks, on the railway, and in the industries springing up around the town. Thomas found work as a coal porter, married and quickly had four children, but one died soon after birth, and then his wife died. It was May, 1906. Thomas was left alone with three children: Albert aged four, Beatrice, three, and Edmund, one.

Other siblings and cousins had moved to Goole too, including my grandmother’s parents. It would not have been entirely alien to them because, like the Boston fens, the land is flat and artificially drained. The families remained close, some lodging with or living next door to each other. They would have rallied round straight away to help Thomas with the children. A working man at that time could not have looked after them alone. 

Soon, however, Thomas was on his own again. He remained in Goole, but the 1911 census shows him living alone in lodgings. Albert is back with Thomas’s parents in the Lincolnshire Fens. Edmund, the youngest child, had died in 1908. Beatrice is nowhere to be found. It seemed that she had disappeared from the records.

It is not unusual to have loose ends in family history research. Sometimes they are never resolved. My grandmother had at least fifty first cousins just on her mother’s side of the family, some of whom also seem untraceable.

Thomas died three years later in 1914. He is buried with his wife and children in a pair of forgotten and neglected plots in Goole cemetery. My grandmother would certainly have remembered her cousin Thomas and his family, being only a little older than his children. 

This sad tale was all we could find for many years. We knew most of it before my father died. At that time it seemed to have absolutely no connection to the man with the Hebrew bible. It never occurred to either of us there might be one.

But the great thing about internet genealogy is that not only does it provide untold resources for tracing your family history, it also facilitates communication between distant relatives and others researching the same families. One day, out of the blue, I received a message from Beatrice’s grandson, actually my third cousin once removed, and the rest of the story fell into place. The man with the Hebrew bible acquired a name.

He was Samuel Isaac Niman, born in 1867 at Plock in central Poland. When he was two his family moved to England and settled in Leeds where he grew up. He trained as a tailor and at some point during the eighteen-nineties emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, to set up in business as a gentleman’s outfitter.

S I Niman, Melbourne, Australia 1901
The Melbourne Advocate, 1901

One of Thomas Sellers’ sisters, Mary Ann Sellars, had also moved to Melbourne. When, how and why remains unknown. She had been in domestic service in the 1891 census, but had then become another of those loose ends that disappeared from the family tree. It transpired that she had married Samuel Isaac Niman in Melbourne in 1900.

News of the death of Thomas’s wife would have been slow to reach them in 1906. One imagines letters sent back and forth by sea with an interval of six or seven weeks between dispatch and delivery. They would have touched upon the uncertain future of Thomas’s children. Exactly how the dialogue then developed one can only guess, but it seems the Nimans were unable to have children of their own and it was agreed they should take one of Thomas’s to live with them in Australia. In March, 1907, Mary Ann sailed from Melbourne, arriving in London in mid-May. Then on the 26th September she sailed back from Liverpool accompanied by five-year old Beatrice, and Beatrice Sellars became known as Beatrice Niman. One wonders what the little girl thought, sailing off to a new life on the other side of the world with an aunt she had known for just four months.

S I Niman, Boston, Lincolnshire 1933
The Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian, 1933

The Nimans remained in Melbourne for a further six years until, in July 1913, they returned to England and settled in Boston. Samuel started another business there, apparently with Mary Ann and Beatrice, eventually opening a ladies clothing shop at 55 West Street. They lived on the premises, which is where my father and his parents would have visited them in 1937. Beatrice by then was married with children of her own, but she still lived in Boston and may also have been present. We no longer know how well Mary Ann knew my grandmother or whether Beatrice remembered her. She would have remembered very little about her time in Goole with her own parents, but might have visited on returning from Melbourne in 1913 because her father, Thomas Sellars, was still alive. One can only wonder. The more you find about family history, the more questions you have.

So my father had not imagined the whole thing. The man with the Hebrew bible was real. He was Samuel Isaac Niman, the husband of one of my father’s mother’s cousins. Beatrice’s son remembered him as very religious. As a child he would sit on his knee at the high desk as he read the Hebrew bible.

Sadly, my father died six or seven years before I was able to tell him.

S I Niman, Boston, Lincolnshire

After Samuel's death, Mary Ann went to live with Beatrice and her family who had moved to Muswell Hill, London. She died there aged 84 in 1956.