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Saturday, 23 February 2019

Pals

Bill and Jack

The well-turned-out chap on the left is my great uncle Bill. I never met him. He died in his early thirties a decade before I was born. He is pictured with his friend, Jack, neat in a bow tie. They were inseparable. They had this postcard made of themselves together. They look like a nineteen-thirties American songwriting duo: Rogers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin, perhaps.

For some years, Jack lived with Bill and his parents. Jack was undoubtedly the liveliest of the pair, and Bill, rather his sidekick. In the makeshift pre-war census known as the 1939 Register, Jack is constantly on the go as a window cleaner, transport driver and police despatch rider. Bill is simply a general labourer in a paper mill. When Jack played in the village football team, Bill had only a supporting role as treasurer. When Jack played drums in a nineteen-thirties dance band, Bill would sit next to him on stage, even though, as someone who knew them once said, “he didn’t have a musical bone in his body”.

When Bill died, Jack ensured he was buried in one half of a double plot with a single stone surround. He reserved the other half for himself and had his own name inscribed on the vacant side with the dates to be added later. The two plots were divided by only a small marker bearing the word “Pals”.

I’m sure I can guess what many of you may be thinking: something that would never have been mentioned, suspected or even thought about in a self-contained, out-of-the-way, nineteen-thirties Yorkshire village. You may be right, or at least half-right, but a few years after Bill’s death, Jack got married. It was during the war, somewhere in the Midlands. Jack was thirty-nine and his wife, twenty-two. They returned to live in Yorkshire and had several children. The names and dates of both Jack and his wife are now inscribed on the stone surround on the other half of the double plot.

I never knew Bill, but have two memories of Jack. One is at my grandma’s house when I was no more than four or five. Jack was smoking heavily, talking in a loud voice, agitated about something. Every other word was “bloody” – “bloody” this, “bloody” that, with the occasional “bugger” thrown in. He spat out the words with the cigarette smoke, jerking and shaking his head, his whole face wobbling as if to emphasise everything he said. I’ve no idea what it was about but he seemed entirely unconcerned that a young child could be watching and listening.

I saw him once more, maybe seven or eight years later. By then he was important as Secretary of the local amateur football league for workplace teams such as Thorne Colliery and the railwaymen, pub teams such as the Victoria and the Buchanan, village teams such as Pollington, Eastrington and Swinefleet, and even a team of Methodists. It was Jack’s duty to present the league cup to the winning finalists. All gathered around after the match for the ceremony and Jack made a short speech. I was surprised he did it without saying “bloody” or “bugger” at all, not even once.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review - A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book

A. S. Byatt: The Children's Book
A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book (4*)

The Children’s Book traces the lives of an enormous cast of characters through the years from 1895 to 1919. Most belong to families of socio-political visionaries: Fabians, Quakers, socialists, anarchists, artists, writers and free-thinkers, living in cottages around the Kentish Weald and North and South Downs. The children grow up and enter into relationships, the adults have muddled secrets which are gradually revealed. Then along comes the brutal cull of the First World War.

Byatt’s descriptions of artworks such as the Gloucester Candlestick are lavish as ever. Her portrayal of the 1900 Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris is exquisite. Pottery, puppetry and fairy stories form central elements of the story, and time and time again we are given lovingly detailed accounts, such as descriptions of shapes and glazes, and how they change when you hold and feel, rather than simply look:
The glaze was silver-gold, with veilings of aquamarine. The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, waterweeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular clouds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely, to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails. The jar had several asymmetric handles which seemed to grow out of it like roots in water, but turned out to have the sly faces and flickering tails of water-snakes, green-spotted gold. It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts. (p23)
The overwhelming, almost clinical detail is the problem. The book reads in places like a social, cultural and political history of the period. There are so many characters (Wikipedia lists 44 fictional characters plus 10 historical who play some part in the novel) it is difficult to keep track of who’s who. You do begin to feel you know most of them before the end of the 615 pages, but I wished I had printed out a list for reference before starting. 

Like Possession, it needs a second reading. On just one, it was not as satisfying. I know I’ll be back, but can’t face another month with it just yet.  


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  


Thursday, 14 February 2019

Drunk

HMP Wakefield prison register, June 1900

In my family history research, I keep coming across instances of people being sent to Wakefield Prison for being drunk.

What a good job they don’t do that now. From what I’ve heard about Wakefield on a Saturday night, they’d need a bigger prison.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Limerick Leanings

Limerick - The Young Lady of Niger

It’s an affliction. Whenever I see a quirky or unusual place name, or sometimes quite a straightforward one, I just have to compose a limerick. 

(Limericks, if you are not familiar with them, are humorous five-line poems, in which lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme and scan with seven to ten syllables, and lines 3 and 4 rhyme and scan with five to seven syllables. The form was popularized by Edward Lear, and well known examples include the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock, and The Young Lady of Niger, above.)

A popular blogger I started to follow recently (Going Gently) mentioned he had been caught by a speed camera, and, as an alternative to points on his licence and a fine, he had agreed to be indoctrinated on a speed awareness course in Mold. Well, Mold! What a name. Irresistible. A limerick immediately began to form in my head. I posted it as a comment on his blog:

          I went on a short course in Mold,
          To be told what I had to be told,
          The days are now past
          Of me driving too fast,
          My right foot must be more controlled.

We play it as a game in the car on holiday (not to be recommended because it’s so easy to stop concentrating on driving and go too fast through speed traps). As Mold is in Wales, here’s another we came up with in that country (although I’m not sure whether the basic idea is that original):

          A fragile young lady from Wales,
          Tried buttered toast spread with snails,
          She shivered and quivered
          When all the snails slithered
          To the edge of her plate leaving trails.

They don’t emerge only in Wales, or only in the car for that matter. A couple of years ago we went for a walk on Exmoor in Devon, through the village made famous in Lorna Doone, and out came this:

          A naïve young fellow from Oare,
          Was stopped in the street by a whore,
          “Hello love,” she said
          Let’s go to bed,
          Now he’s not so naïve any more.

          (OR - Now he knows what his ***** is for.)

I think that’s quite enough of that for now.

Is anyone else encumbered with this?

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Brendan and the Shared House

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

I always assumed we would see each other again one day. We would go to the pub and get pissed and laugh about the people and the good times in the shared houses in Leeds. But it was not to be.

We would remember Ron, the guy who never stopped talking, notorious for ‘ronopolising’ the conversation with his mind-numbing ‘ronologues’ which always began “Did I tell you about the time I …”, and if you had ever been somewhere, done something or seen something, he had always been somewhere, done something or seen something better. He used to leave his towel draped over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom and it stank. He never washed it. You would think a hospital bacteriology technician would have been worried about bugs.

And Dave who gassed the place out with the peculiar aromatic smell of Holland House pipe tobacco. He smoked even when it was his turn to cook, speckling everything with ash. He once accidentally tipped the thing over my food and instead of being sorry just laughed and got on with his own unconcerned. Anyone would think he owned the place. Actually, he did. He was always asking “Can I trouble you gentlemen for some rent please?”

Then there was Nick, who could swear like only someone from the back streets of Manchester could, and Larry who made himself dainty little jellies and custards every Monday and lined them up uncovered on the kitchen table for several days (we had no fridge). And Roger, the Ph.D. student with his clever cryptic comebacks, and Paul with the outrageous ginger beard and silly Lancashire accent. And Stuart who was so well organised you had to make an appointment three weeks in advance just to ask him something. And the other Dave, the Geordie, who did an animated rendition of The Lampton Worm, and was on holiday when the electoral register form came, so we put his middle name down as Aloysius.

And who could forget ‘Pervy Pete’, the television rent collector, who came each month to empty the coin box, greeted us “hello mensies”, and lingered uninvited to take an unseemly interest in which bedrooms we slept? That television always ran out of money right in the middle of Monty Python or just before a punchline in Jokers Wild.

The others came and went, but Brendan and I stayed longest. We were from ordinary Yorkshire backgrounds, shared the same sense of humour and had under-achieved our ‘A’ Levels. Brendan was the liveliest among us, and the best looking. In his long Afghan coat, with his smooth young face and long centrally-parted hair, the kids in the street called him “that lad who looks like David Cassidy.” He made us laugh with his silly puns and deliberate misunderstandings. He could play guitar better than me and instantly put chords to almost any song at all. He could throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it the right way round in his mouth. He had an impossibly beautiful girl friend who was training to be a doctor.

We were both desperate to escape our mundane jobs, me from an accountants’ office and Brendan from a veterinary laboratory, and did so around the same time in 1977, me to university and Brendan on Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He dreamed of some idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat naked in the twilight, and was dismayed to be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, to an isolated rural village in Northern Ghana called Pong-Tamale, around 400 miles from the coast. It was not even much of a change of job: he went to run a laboratory in a veterinary college.

Pong-Tamale, Ghana (click to play video)
In those days, people still wrote letters, and I looked forward to his aerograms dropping through the letterbox with their exotic stamps and tales of distant Africa. Things were not easy. It was oppressively hot. He suffered tropical ailments and diseases. They were short of supplies and equipment. He asked to be sent books as there was little to read and no television, not that they always had electricity to run one.

Yet, after an initial term of eighteen months, he decided to stay. He found a salaried post for three years with the Overseas Development Ministry in the city of Kumasi, about two hundred and fifty miles to the south. Then, after a year back in England, he found a post at Mtwara in Tanzania, and then another at Morogoro. It sounded like a television wildlife documentary: horses, Land Rovers, lions, zebras, and trekking in the Ngorongoro highlands.

I saw him a couple of times over these years during his brief visits home. He was now married with children, and I was busy with my life too. Letters became less frequent. He suggested I visit them in East Africa but it was never the right time.

Then we lost touch. We both moved within a short space of time and I no longer had his address. Due to a downturn in the property market, we rented out my wife’s house where we had been living, and it was ten years before we finally sold it. In emptying it we came across various papers stuffed at the back of a cupboard by tenants, including a ten year old unopened letter from Brendan.

Replying after ten years seemed pointless. Perhaps I should have tried to find him, but didn’t. Did I fear the collision of past and present? We had surely both moved on.

But, it was already too late, as I distressingly discovered yet another decade later. Out of pure curiosity, I typed his distinctive name into a genealogy web site and was shaken to find a record of his death in 2001. It took more time to find what had happened. They had returned permanently to England in the nineteen-nineties, and Brendan had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. He had been living less than ten miles away. All that time ago, and I had no idea.

We’ll never have that drink now.