“If you played for your primary school football team, come and stand over here.”
I proudly went and stood over there. So did three quarters of the class. The prefect who had been tasked with helping to stream the first year into equal ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups scratched his head and consulted the master. Then he pointed to McKenzie, the tallest boy in this large elite.
“You, come and stand here. The rest of you, stand next to him in order of height, tallest on the left.”
There was much jostling and preening in the middle ranks, but I knew my place, and went straight to the right. The cut was duly made two thirds of the way along the line, and I was consigned to the B-stream.
Watford Grammar liked to rub shoulders with prestigious private schools, and rugby was key to that strategy. The absence of football was the cause of periodic unsuccessful protests at the school. We started the term playing hockey, which I quite enjoyed, then after half term we were switched to rugby.
It was easy for me to stand out in this group. Most had no talent and no interest. I was fiercely competitive – with reasonable ball skills, and good acceleration. Mainly, I cared – I was determined. My tackling technique was sound: if I wanted to stop a boy, even a large one, he was coming down. Mr Morgan looked in despair at the kids trying not to get dirty, running away from the ball, shirking tackles, standing there shivering – generally ninnying about – and declared “Edwards is the only one of you with any guts!”
I was promoted to training for the U12 team. Dad thought I’d make an excellent scrum-half, but that position was taken. I can’t actually remember what position I was assigned – I certainly wasn’t part of the scrum – probably the wing, as I was given the job of throwing the ball in at the line-out. We worked out our signal: if I was told to throw long, I should throw short, and vice versa. I wondered how long it would take our opponents to crack that code.
The Saturday in January dawned crisp and cold. So cold that when Dad dropped me off at the school that afternoon, a master was waiting there to tell us the match was cancelled as the pitch was frozen hard. My debut would have to wait.
Dad loved rugby. He had played for London Welsh second team in the late 1940s, and captained their third team. He was of average height, and not heavily built, but fast and skilful. He recounted how, after he had once scored a try, a teammate had said ‘I knew we’d score as soon as I saw R.A.’s head go back.’
Eventually, though, he suddenly realised, as he was standing one afternoon on a muddy pitch in driving rain, that he wasn’t enjoying it any more, and retired from the game. He would sometimes go to Twickenham with his brother when England played Wales, but mostly watched on TV. My brother and I once had reason to be glad of his enthusiasm: after watching a thrilling Wales win, Dad leapt from his chair and said ‘Right, is Moore’s still open?’ and we rushed down to Mill End to buy the secondhand moped Rob and I had been eyeing up.
Rob’s unusual left leg restricted his running, and had ruled him out of playing football or rugby competitively. Dad would love to have a rugby playing son, and I was his last chance.
So far most of my rugby had been played against kids who were small, or uninterested, or both. When training resumed for our next school fixture, I had a taste of playing against larger boys who actually cared. At eleven years some had entered a rapid growth phase, and the gap in height and weight seemed to grow by the week. For a while I continued to hurl myself at them, but soon it occurred to me that I could get hurt, and my conviction started to waver.
So at the training session I spoke up and confessed to the coach that I didn’t want to be in the team. I just wasn’t enjoying it. He was disappointed: I had been chosen for my competitive spirit: where had that gone? But he accepted it, and asked if anyone else didn’t want to be there. A boy called Mark took advantage of the opportunity to make a more low key exit, and as we walked away he confided ‘I wish I had the gift of the gab like you.’ My brief spell in the U12s was over, and I now played rugby on Monday afternoons only.
When Dad died in 2015, I went through his address book to make sure everyone had been notified. One card went to Richard, about my age, the son of one of my Mum’s best friends. In his reply, after offering condolences, he wrote:
I will always remember how he gave me his old London Welsh rugby shirt when I started playing for them. I carried it around in my sports bag for the next five years as a good luck mascot.
I never knew that. I couldn’t have reached the heights of London Welsh. But I thought, if that fixture hadn’t been cancelled, had I stayed the course, Dad would have loved to give me that shirt.
Aelwyn peered sleepily at the darkness through the kitchen window. “It’s not fair. Why can’t I go too?”
“Because you’re too young.”
Maggie continued to fuss over Glyn. “No, you’ll need your raincoat. Have you got your sandwiches? Your apple? Your water bottle? Your permission slip? Bob, could you get Glyn tuppence spending money? Thank you. Glyn, put your cap on straight.”
Aelwyn was bitterly disappointed, but complaining wouldn’t change anything, just annoy his mum. He was nearly eight, three measly years younger, that was all, and his big brother was making no effort to hide his excitement. Soon he would be joining his friends on the long charabanc trip from Dolgellau.
“Two hundred and three years! It’s been two hundred and three years since the last one, and it’ll be another two hundred and three years until the next one!”
“No darling” said Maggie mildly, peering over her husband’s shoulder at the Liverpool Daily Post. “It says here there’s going to be another one in 1999. On August 11th.”
“Oh thanks, I’ll put it in my diary.”
Maggie looked sharply at the boy, but saw the beginning of a smile on his face. Bob stirred from his newspaper.
“Only seventy-two years to wait, Aelwyn!”
“And forty-three days!”
Bob, the headmaster, smiled and winked at his son, the future actuary. He furtively handed him two pennies as Maggie saw Glyn out of the door. “You’d better get back to bed.”
I’ll be eighty, thought Aelwyn. Some people get to eighty, don’t they?
Seventy-two years and forty-three days later, Aelwyn woke up in Merryfield Manor in St Cleer. His two sons had organised a holiday with their young families for him and Kath: eleven people in all, with Alice at three the youngest of four granddaughters.
Rob and Rik were tempted by the thought of driving to the Cheesewring, an atmospheric ancient site, to view the eclipse, but were overruled by concerns about traffic, parking and crowds. So a leisurely breakfast was taken, and the garden chairs were strategically placed ready for the event at ten past eleven. Aelwyn told his story from 1927. Glyn had indeed needed his raincoat: it had poured with rain and no-one had seen a thing, beyond a few seconds of heightened gloom.
The children were repeatedly warned against looking directly at the sun, so that Robyn, the oldest, was moved to announce that she got it, thanks, and had no intention of blinding herself. The weather was not as bad as last time, but there was still a solid cloud covering. Anticipation mounted as the time approached.
When it came, it was atmospheric rather than spectacular. The clouds were thin enough that Aelwyn could make out the shape of the moon as it moved across the face of the sun, and as it grew darker he saw an owl swoop from woods nearby, and heard a cock crow in the distance.
Later he watched the sun go down with a glass of wine in his hand, and spoke of punching the air in celebration after being told about the special holiday. “It was an amazing experience. Well worth waiting seventy-two years for.”
And forty-three days, Dad. Don’t forget the forty-three days.
Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.
As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.
Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.
Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.
There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.
The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)
The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.
Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.
Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.
(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)
My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?
My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.
Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.
The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.
Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.
The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.
This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.
I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.
A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?
My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?
Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.
In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?
I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.
Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.
And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.
I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.
I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.
I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.
Tuesday 17 October 2017, Tooting Tram and Social. Her first time on stage since a couple of things at school. She looks good but nervous. The older girl has done a few open mic nights before, and chats with her reassuringly, hugs her, helps her bring the microphone stand down. Finally the nine-piece band has finished tuning up and running sound checks and they launch into their first number, Barefoot. She sings beautifully, but keeps her movements small. The band is enthusiastically received, with help from friends and family in the audience. Apart from the other girl, her bandmates didn’t realise this was her first performance in public – she hadn’t told them so they wouldn’t fuss her.
The following May she came with me to see the Rolling Stones at London Stadium. She has never needed any lessons in stagecraft, but if she had, it was a good one. The support act was Liam Gallagher: as we entered the stadium he was in his default state of aggressive moaning.
We could see him on the big screen of course, but from a distance it took me a full five minutes to locate him in person on stage. He wore dark blue against a dark background, he stood there and barely moved. He didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself. So what chance did we have?
Liam is famously a huge Beatles fan: had he not, then, heard the story of Bruno Koschmider yelling “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (Put on a show!) to enliven the five young lads from Liverpool, passive as they played their instruments in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1960?
When the Rolling Stones came onstage, the change in mood was immediate and thrilling. Jagger, of course, still appeared a tiny figure, but he wore a shiny silver jacket and moved ceaselessly to every corner of the stage – you couldn’t miss him – and he transmitted an energy belying his 74 years to the whole stadium. When it grew dark he wore a billowing red silk shirt which glowed like a beacon. We had paid for a show, and by god we were going to get one.
That’s how you put on a show, I said, as if she needed telling. The nine-piece band she sang with worked well musically, but its members had very different personalities, and the negativity some brought to group discussions may have inhibited her stage performances. But her confidence was quietly growing with experience and positive feedback. When they played their most prestigious gig yet at a festival, other band members said “It’s 400 people, aren’t you nervous?” She replied “No, 40, 400, 4000, we play for people so we can play to more people, that’s the point. This is why we’re doing this.”
The nine piece evolved into a smaller, more flexible band which had the advantage of not needing such a large stage, and not taking so long to do its sound check. Just as important was the personal chemistry between members: they were also mates. Confident of the band’s support, her performances became freer and more energetic.
Sunday 25 August 2019, Greenbelt Festival. A large tent at this family friendly festival, mothers, fathers, children and babes in arms swaying to the music. The People Versus are closing their set with one of their most danceable numbers, Charybdis. It’s hot in the tent, but she’s singing and dancing freely, her floaty top amplifying her movements.
The band is finishing its sound checks. She’s chatting to me, quite relaxed, three or four rows back in the crowd. The announcer leaves the stage to a burst of applause, and she has to push her way through. The teasing opening riff of Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood starts up as she climbs on stage smiling and looking at ease. Now she’s on stage the show can start.
She brings down the mic and starts to move to the music. She hasn’t started singing yet and we already know we’re going to have fun. Let’s do this.
At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.
Sallie and her husbandJack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.
In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.
Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.
Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.
But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.
On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”
On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”
She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that marriages were better when the woman is older. I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.
Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:
“Drink plenty water!” “I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!” “Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)
“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore) “Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma). “Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.
Here are some of the things Sallie did:
She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news. She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer. She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water. She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night. She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.) She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common. She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones). She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing. She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners. She knitted jumpers for Rob and me. She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.
Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:
Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford) Pears Soap Harry Worth Dachshunds, preferably black and tan Danny Kaye Songs of Praise Wordsworth An occasional sherry Rose’s Lime Jelly Tennyson George Eliot
Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like
The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”) Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was) The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”) Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”) Edward Heath
Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.
In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.
Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.
For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.
The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.
After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.
I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.
Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.
Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.
(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:
He shall prick that annual blister Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.)
Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.
So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.
Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.
In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.
Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.
In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.
I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.
Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.
The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.
Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.
It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.
A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.
Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.
Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.
By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.
I hadn’t thought about it for years. After our dad died, my brother and I were performing the melancholy task of sorting through the stuff in his garage. Dad hadn’t driven for the last few years, and had sold his car, so we had used the garage to store old furniture and other things he no longer needed. An upholstered armchair doesn’t look its best after doing time in a garage, so this and most other contents were soon sorted onto the pile for the house clearance people. But there was a box of papers and pictures – some framed – which caught my eye, and I took it home with me to sort through at leisure.
My grandfather Jack – my Mum’s father – had enjoyed painting, and there were a number of his paintings there. I flicked through them, until a rural scene in a battered frame suddenly seized my attention. I was instantly back at my childhood home, where the picture had hung in our lounge. A canal runs under a bridge: a large oak tree grows on the bank beyond. Tiny figures descending a track add a cartoonish touch – a man and his dog, the man with something long over his shoulder, perhaps a gun, a fishing rod or a spade. It is annotated:
Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank
Jack was not a man who liked to blow his own trumpet, so I take it either that he was proud of this painting, or that perhaps it was a gift to my mother who might have asked him to sign it. Either way, I’m glad he did.
The painting is pleasant and carefully executed, but not especially distinctive, apart from one detail which hooked into my memory and confirmed that this was indeed the picture I remembered. Through the small arch of the bridge, Jack had painted two bushes, either side of the stream. To my childish eye this had looked like two people in a bubble car, and even after I had inspected it closely, I could never quite shake this impression. And now, perhaps fifty years later, I was looking once more upon the bubble-car picture.
Chirk is in Wales, just on the border. Jack had no personal connection with the place, except that his wife Sallie had grown up there. In 1956 they were living in Wallasey, on the Wirral, some fifty miles away, but they didn’t drive. I try to imagine the day. Perhaps my parents, who lived in Irby in Cheshire at the time, took Sallie and Jack to Chirk for a picnic – possibly a nostalgic trip at Sallie’s request. Rob would have been nearly three, me a bump in my mother’s tummy. Or perhaps their son Philip came for a visit from Cambridge with his wife Doreen and baby Jonathan: Philip was restless and enjoyed trips out. I can imagine Sallie catching up with friends in town while Jack, never at ease socially, elected to remain on the riverbank with his sketchbook.
I had the painting re-framed and it now hangs in our dining room. I had been hoping to try to find the Red Bridge – Chirk on a trip to north Wales my wife and I have planned in September: but as I write in the third week of the Coronavirus lockdown, it is looking doubtful whether we can go this year. And then, when I posted the painting in the Chirk History Facebook group – in the hope of finding its location – I was told the sad news that the bridge, on the Llangollen Canal, was destroyed in the early 1970s, and that the tree came down a few years ago.
Ah well, I still have the painting. And a lovely fellow from the Facebook group offered to take some pictures of the site on his walk and send them through.
And I’m told the bridge looked just as Jack painted it.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“You’re not one of those…misogynists are you?”
It was a harsh question for an easily embarrassed eighteen year-old. Perhaps he was worried that I was “queer”. I had to tell him that no, I did not dislike girls. The problem was more likely in the opposite direction.
Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – Bob to his friends – was paying his first visit to us since we moved to Chipperfield a few months earlier. He was 91, and the long journey from Dolgellau must have taken its toll: a couple of days after he arrived he became ill, and he would not see his home again.
He was the longest lived of our grandparents, also the last surviving, and I remember him well, from the age of eighty or so. Quite deaf, with a bulky hearing aid, and the battery in his waistcoat pocket. In his other pocket he kept his favourite sweets: Callard & Bowser’s Old English Treacle Brittle, or Callard & Bowser’s Butterscotch.
I had a sweet tooth, and when I was small he would break off generous pieces for me from the paper packets, no doubt at some cost to my teeth. He had been a schoolteacher and headmaster: growing up in Llanuwchllyn, English had been his second language. He spoke it correctly, as only a language student does. So instead of “thanks” or even “thank you”, he would say “I thank you.”
Another quirk in his use of English was his understanding of the word “now”. His daughter-in-law Sheila found it infuriating that when she said “Dinner is ready now” he would wander off or start another crossword. Apparently “now” meant “soon” to Taid.
My mum Kath recalled that when she and Dad visited him in Dolgellau, he would tell long jokes, entirely in English, until the punchline, which he delivered in Welsh. Mum would then look questioningly at Dad, who would reply “It doesn’t really translate.” It might have been a risqué joke, or a pun in Welsh – or perhaps Dad’s Welsh wasn’t good enough, I still don’t know. In any event, Mum found it quite annoying. She also recounted being terrified as the old man drove his little Ford Popular around the narrow winding stone-walled Welsh roads at speed. I still remember the old leather smell of the seats.
His wife Maggie, our Nain had died in 1963, and in the summer holidays we would visit him in a house called Pantclyd in Dolgellau, named after the farm in Llanuwchllyn where he was born, and later at his flat in Henfaes, where we would arrive to find him snoozing in front of the cricket. The flat had only two bedrooms, so Rob and I slept in the spare room while Mum and Dad stayed in the B&B across the road. We would spend about two weeks there, exploring Snowdonia, climbing Cader Idris, mostly visiting the beach at Fairbourne – sadly now facing abandonment as sea levels rise.
Taid would also visit us near London every year, with Dad and his brother Glyn sharing chauffeur duties for the long round trip: he would stay one week with Glyn and his wife Sheila and family, and one with us. Taid loved his papers, and when he stayed with us he would have Y Dydd (a weekly Welsh language newspaper) and the Liverpool Daily Post sent to him. The Post was printed on thin and crackly paper, and while Mum was trying to take her much needed afternoon nap, he would fold and refold the broadsheet paper down to the smallest rectangle, briefly scan an article, then open the paper up and start again – quite oblivious, in his deafness, to the din he was making.
He had been a schoolteacher in Liverpool, and headmaster of Dolgellau Primary School. Mum reckoned that middle aged men walking through the town would straighten their ties and hide their cigarettes behind their backs when they saw him coming.
Robert Evan Edwards was born in 1883, his first name reused from his brother who had died in infancy two years earlier. He was the third of eight surviving children of Ifan and Elin Edwards. Elin had a sixteen-month old daughter Ellen by an unnamed father when they married in 1876, and was already carrying their first child together, Evan John. Ifan was a sheep farmer, but Bob seems to have been more interested in books.
He told his granddaughter Susan that he became a pupil teacher in Llanuwchllyn, (which meant helping younger children) as his only other option at the time was unappealing – to become a servant on another farm. The 1901 census shows him as the only English speaker in the family home – the others spoke Welsh only. At seventeen, he was working as an elementary (primary) school teacher.
Bob had pacifist inclinations, and the local newspaper records him in the same year arguing in debate that war was more damaging than drunkenness.
Llanuwchllyn, Congregationalist Church Youth Meeting (February 1901). “…There followed a debate “Does war or drunkenness do more harm to humanity?”. In the absence of E. Edwards, Bridgend, R.E. Edwards opened arguing “war”; A.L Davies argued “drunkenness”. Further comments were made by E.J. Edwards, Hendre. On voting, it was found that the majority believed that drunkenness is more damaging to mankind…”
Bob’s family saw its share of tragedy. His brother Richard, just eighteen months younger, drowned at the age of twenty while swimming in a lake near Pantclyd in 1905. Two years later, his oldest brother Evan died at the age of thirty in a gun accident.
Bob met Maggie Jones in about 1910 when both were working as teachers at Granby Street School in Liverpool, where one of their colleagues was Fred Attenborough, father to Richard and David.
1914 provided brutal evidence of how much harm war could do to humanity. Bob was rejected for service due to poor eyesight: additionally teaching became a reserved occupation. When conscription for unmarried and widowed men was introduced in January 1916, he had been married to Maggie for six months. A child soon followed: their first son, Glyn, born nine and a half months after the wedding, and their second, my father Aelwyn after three more years.
Bob aided the war effort in a different way: in 1916 he volunteered to help the National Savings movement to raise desperately needed funds for the government. His work was rewarded with an MBE in 1945, and he served the movement for over fifty years in total.
He continued to promote National Savings in his old age: every Christmas and birthday my brother and I would receive £2 each – one pound to spend, and one pound to save. We were allowed to choose between the sensible Savings Certificates or the more frivolous Premium Bonds.
Bob’s view of life was generally serious, although this was not always shared by his wife and sons, as my Dad’s story relates:
In fairness to Taid, this twee turn of phrase was not his invention, nor was it the artist’s – it comes from Fair Jenny by Robert Burns.
Taid’s was the first funeral service I attended, and I was eighteen. I understood, of course, that it wasn’t a tragedy when a man of 91 died. But still I found it upsetting, as we stood around the open grave on a remote hillside in Brithdir. The sun was shining, but there was a biting cold wind for October. It couldn’t matter to Taid, but the loneliness and desolation of the place frightened me, and my mortality hit me like a sledgehammer.
Dad wrote this:
Slow Welsh voices Half forgotten cousins, dimly remembered friendships. My two sons a part, but yet apart. I look towards the sky, beyond the pale autumn hills, Reaching for infinity, Wanting to touch his hand just once again. A little dust to his frail dust; Then we go down through the trees, to begin life again.
I discovered a couple of years ago that Taid’s birthplace, Pantclyd in Llanuwchllyn is still occupied by an Edwards, so I sent an old-fashioned letter to enquire if we might be related, and was pleased to find out that the current owner, Eiddon Edwards, is indeed my second cousin – the grandson of Bob’s younger brother Llewelyn. My wife and I are hiring a cottage in Llanuwchllyn in September owned by Eiddon’s brother Geraint. I’m looking forward to meeting them both, and perhaps visiting Pantclyd. And also hoping to meet Dad’s wonderful cousin Arthur, still going strong at 98.
I would have made a poor farmer: my practical skills are poor and I don’t cope well with cold weather – working in an office suited me better. Similarly Taid seems to have preferred the schoolroom to the farm, and perhaps the effort he made to learn English as a child led his part of the family away from the land and into more comfortable (if less beautiful) workplaces. And for that, Taid, I thank you.
You might know that Nain (pronounced nine) is Welsh for Grandma, and Taid (pronounced tide) is Welsh for Grandpa. So our parents used those names to distinguish them from our (more) English grandparents, Nana andGan-gan I am lucky to remember all four of our grandparents, although Nain – Maggie as she was known – is the one I remember least well, as she died when I was seven.
But I remember the long trips to Dolgellau in the early 1960s when the British motorway network was in its infancy. Dad would speed us up the M1 as fast as our old black Wolseley would take us, then Mum would take over, hands gripping the wheel for dear life, tensely negotiating the A5 through the midlands landmarks. Brownhills, The Dun Cow…those terrifying three-lane highways – who owns the middle lane? Overtake the lorry, if you feel lucky. There would be a packed lunch to eat in the car: sandwiches wrapped in silver foil and chocolate mini-rolls. The smell of vacuum flask coffee takes me back there still. Dad would take over again beyond Shrewsbury, winding through the hills, possibly needing to stop once or twice if Rob or I felt unwell.
At last we would reach Pantclyd, a rambling old house near the centre of Dolgellau. Nain and Taid would greet us, and Rob and I would rush down the steep steps to the small lawn, to marvel at the stone lion’s mouth discharging what I thought was a stream. The garden was in a hollow, and seemed forever damp – it had always just rained, or it was about to, and there were mossy flagstones and the smell of the wet box hedge.
Nain and Taid had met when they were colleagues, teaching at Granby Street elementary school, and a long career of not taking any nonsense from schoolchildren had left her with a slightly austere manner.
But I remember she could be affectionate and indulgent with her grandchildren. She was also protective of Taid: one time I was playing a game which required him to count how many times I could jump in the air (or something) and she stepped in to tell me that “your Taid is getting tired.”
In her late seventies she developed lymphatic cancer, and I remember being shocked when my Dad read out a letter from Taid reporting that she was making progress, because what he meant was that she was now able to pick up a cricket ball. Then early on Boxing Day 1963 my Dad took a phone call: she had died. I was called into my parents’ bedroom to be told the news, and I remember crying, and protesting “I didn’t want her to die” – as if I thought my wishes could have made any difference. When my Dad died in 2015 I found his folder of stories, which included his own memories of that day.
Rob and I didn’t attend the funeral. Mum said the first time she saw Aelwyn looking old was when he was bearing his mother’s coffin.
Also among Dad’s papers were large envelopes containing research and handwritten family trees for three of my grandparents. Dad didn’t pursue genealogy himself, but as he grew older had often been asked by relatives for details of family history, and had carefully filed the correspondence. In one email exchange he shed some light on Maggie’s father, John Cadman Jones, who died when Dad was five:
I remember him as an old man sitting in the corner of the parlour in Granby Street (No.87) (Liverpool), saying nothing. I discovered later that he was probably just a sodden heap. My mother was put off alcohol for life by this experience. My brother Glyn, three years older than me, remembered “helping” Grandpa with his printing machine.
A cousin from the same part of my family confirmed the character of Maggie’s father:
John Cadman was fiery and drank. His son John said as a young boy he would lie awake for his father to come home worrying if he was drunk and breaking plates. His Aunty Flo called him a street angel and a house devil.
The young Maggie’s early home life can’t have been easy, and her daughter-in-law Sheila recounted how in later years Maggie’s son would occasionally enjoy a quiet pint at his cricket club, to be told off by his mother: “Glyn, you stink of alcohol!”
When my Dad’s house was sold, I paid one last visit before the house clearance people came to do their work. I thought I had cleared out everything we wanted to keep, but there was a blue and white willow pattern tapestry Nain had made, originally as part of a firescreen, but now hanging as a picture. I couldn’t leave it there: I brought it home, and it’s still in the family.
Back in May, when I was just 62, I was quite pleased to complete the Milton Keynes Marathon in 3.52.11. “Wow, that’s a good time” said a friend. “Nice of you to say so” I replied, “but no, not really.”
You see, some old fellow out there has run a 2.36.15 marathon. I can use an age-graded calculator which divides the (approximate) world record time for my age by my own time: this comes out at 67.29%, compared to 100% for the best in the world of my age. Welcome to the unforgiving world of age grading.
Age grading is a useful tool for motivating runners as we get older. Inevitably, as we move into our forties and beyond, new personal bests will elude us. But an age graded percentage can offer encouragement by showing us that although our times are slower in absolute terms, they can actually be better quality when viewed against our peers. So we can still have an achievable target to aim at. In my case I’m pretty chuffed if I can hit 70%.
For many years, the London Marathon has reserved a number of “Good For Age” places: men and women achieving certain times at other marathons in each age group have been guaranteed entry. This changed from the 2019 race: since then, running a good for age time only gets the right to apply for a place: a cut-off is then applied inside the qualification standard to reduce the number of qualifying runners to the preset limit.
Presumably this change was made to manage the unpredictability of the number of qualifiers, as the London Marathon grows ever more popular. But it is harsh on runners: in previous years, they could find a flat, fast course and aim for a London qualifying time, knowing that if they managed to hit the target, they had a guaranteed place. But now they must wait to see where the cut-off is made: very possibly all their effort to qualify will have been for nothing.
In my case, had I run eight minutes faster and got just inside my 3.45 qualifying standard, I would have been bitterly disappointed when the cut-off was later made at 3.42.20. I suspect most runners would rather see slightly tougher qualifying standards, but with guaranteed entry as before: at least they would have a fixed and transparent target. The organisers shouldn’t find it difficult to manage some variation in numbers: a surplus could be absorbed by the inevitable large number of late cancellations due to injury, while any extra places would be snapped up by charities.
Comparing the qualifying standards for men and women highlights another potential issue. The standards for women appear more lenient compared to world record standards. I thought I’d run some numbers to check this impression.
The table confirms this – women under 60 have substantially less demanding standards. In the youngest age category, the required age grade is more than 9% lower than for men. This means that for a large band of club standard runners, women will qualify while men of comparable ability will not.
This is not an accident. The organisers have deliberately chosen equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. The website states:
The number of Good For Age entries for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon is capped at a total of 6,000 places and has been split evenly with 3,000 entries for women and 3,000 entries for men.
“Split evenly” sounds fair, but takes no account of the different numbers of men and women who might apply. As far as I know, this figure is not disclosed, but presumably the easier standards for women reflect fewer applications. And while there are many areas where a case can be argued for positive discrimination, I’m not sure that running – the most democratic and easily measured of sports – is one of them. Surely both genders should be set equally demanding targets?
Notice, though, that older men have easier targets than women in terms of age grading. Age grading isn’t perfect, and can easily be affected by outliers, especially in the older categories, where statistics are relatively thin. And if, for example, an 80-year old is willing and able to run a marathon, most people would say good luck to them. In 2019, 14 men and 3 women over 80 started the race, and all but one finished. You could hardly say they’re hogging all the places.
It’s interesting to compare qualifying times with the Boston Marathon. Alone among the major city marathons, Boston sets tough standards for the great majority of its entrants. It has been run regularly since 1897, and as the oldest annual marathon, it takes pride in being seen as a high quality race.
Boston also used to guarantee entry to anyone achieving the qualifying standard, but from 2012 the ever increasing popularity of the race led them to apply a lower cut-off. Such a high percentage of their entrants are time qualifiers (over 80% for 2020) that they have to carefully manage the numbers to stay within their race limit: this contrasts with London where the 6,000 Good For Age places represent only about 15% of the total field. In 2019, for example, Boston had so many applicants achieving qualifying times that it imposed a drastic cut-off of 4 minutes 52 seconds lower, which resulted in it rejecting 7,248 runners with qualifying times (about a quarter of the applicants), and then tightening the qualifying times for the following year.
Boston age grade standards for men are much more consistent, falling broadly into the 65-70% range, while London varies hugely between 57% and 74%. However, the women’s standards in Boston seem to have been added as a lazy afterthought – a flat 30 minutes has been added to the men’s time in all age categories, which strongly favours younger women, so that, for example, an 80-year old woman needs a world-class 90% age grading to qualify, while younger women again have substantially easier targets than the men.
Boston has been running a successful marathon for over 120 years, London for nearly 40. These fantastic races have earned the right to run themselves as they wish, and are only being constrained by their own success. But both, if they wished, could improve on the fairness and transparency of their qualification rules, without having to make more places available.
Boston could reset the women’s qualifying times to a more consistent age grading standard by tightening them for younger groups and loosening them for the over 60s. The current standards for women have not been given serious thought.
And London? I’ve no doubt that the organisers thought they were doing the right thing by setting the standards to achieve equal representation for men and women. But isn’t that just patronising? Surely all runners – where possible – deserve an equal opportunity. Qualifying times should be adjusted to make it a level playing field between men and women. And I’m pretty sure most runners would like to see a return to guaranteed entry for qualifying times – even if that means the times are slightly more demanding – so they know exactly what they have to do to qualify. If the organisers care about the runners, they should prioritise fairness and transparency over their own convenience.
Eleven heroes left Glengorm
Ignoring the approaching storm
So Wednesday night in Tobermory
Begins our sad and sober story
Where our eleven sailors bold
(Four young, four middle-aged, three cold)
With trembling hearts and steady feet em-
barked upon the Alpha Beta.
Four young, four middle-aged, three wrinklies
Went out that night in search of Minkes.
Aelwyn, senior of the crowd,
The father, resolute and proud
Kath held on for dear, dear life,
Loving mother, nana, wife.
Speff was knocking back the grog
Every bit the old sea-dog.
Rachel went to eat a sandwich
Of chicken, bread and basil, and which
Once her appetite was sated
From her stomach separated
Embarking on its own romantic
Trip across the North Atlantic.
The boat sailed on into the night
While whales danced, just out of sight.
Said Lindsay “I spy W”
Said the others “we will trouble you
To show us, please, where is this whale?”
“It’s in the head”, (like Alice’s “tail”)
Poor Debbie, rock on whom this trip was built
Sat below, consumed with guilt.
The isles of Rum and Muck and Eigg
They really didn’t give a feigg.
The isles of Eigg and Rum and Muck
They really couldn’t have worse luck.
While the crew were bravely singing
Still the Mars bar mocked them, swinging.
The boat sailed on, it pitched and rolled
But daunted not our sailors bold.
Now coming back, with trembling hand
Gratefully regained the land
Adventurers who’d spotted nuffin
But a porpoise, seagulls and a puffin.
Now at last the story’s done
We go away to look for sun
But ever more, up in the north
They’ll mark July the twenty-fourth
And the locals will regale you
96 successes means that 4 will fail you.
Last before we separate
Kath says that we must name a date
When all will come back to this glen
So, see you here in twenty-ten!
To view the gem of Scotland’s isles
Nine supplicants came many miles
Aelwyn first, a candle planted –
His wish of peace for Kath was granted
Rob requested knees and toes
To see him safely up Munros
Fiona travelled not to pray –
Admired instead Mairi’s display
Said Debbie, can you ease my lumbar?
Sorted, pet, said Saint Columba
Handsome Nick and fair Fiona
Enhanced the beauty of Iona
Rachel asked for A-stars plenty
Alice? Just a fashion house, by twenty
Rik said “Please sir, can you
Help me know a thing’s true value –
And less to care how it is priced?”
“I’m Columba, mate, not Jesus Christ!”
In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.
Later there was an event at the nearby Fine Art Society, where there were a few short speeches about Lear, and where some of his work could be viewed. Among the small crowd was Sir David Attenborough. I’m useless at recognising celebrities, but there was no mistaking him. His benign aura filled the room. Here he was an observer, not a speaker: he has said he first became acquainted as a child with Lear through The Owl and the Pussycat, but later was entranced by Lear’s exquisite bird drawings and paintings, which were much valued by naturalists before the age of photography. Sir David had become a collector of nature prints, and especially prized Lear’s work.
(The day ended with a wreath laying at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where Roger McGough was to read How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear. However, he showed up late. “Have I missed it?” “Yes Roger, you have.”)
When I told my father of my A-list celebrity spotting, he wanted to know whether I’d asked Sir David whether his father had ever taught at Granby Street school in Liverpool. Of course I hadn’t, I knew nothing about this. Dad explained that his parents – before they married – were both colleagues of David’s father Fred at the school in 1912, and was able to produce a photograph showing them all. Apparently my Taid had been good friends with Fred, and had gone with him on at least one holiday.
I wished that I had known this at the Fine Art Society, but all was not lost. I wrote to Sir David to ask whether it was indeed true that his father had taught at Granby Street, and to my delight he sent a short handwritten letter confirming that this was so.
I attended a Bicentennial Conference in Oxford in September, so I took a couple of photographs with me in case he should turn up. The first day passed pleasantly enough with several academics – I thought – over-analysing Lear’s nonsense: but it was after all an academic conference, and the robust joy in Lear’s writing survived the intellectual bombardment.
But on the afternoon of the second day, there was a talk on Lear’s bird illustrations, and Sir David was there. Everyone in the room tried to carry on as normal, but every so often eyes would dart back to take him in one more time. He made a couple of insightful contributions.
At tea break he was sitting with a woman who I took to be a secretary or family member. I steeled myself: he probably gets very bored with being accosted by strangers, though presumably most are well meaning. But I needn’t have worried: as soon as I approached the great man and drew his attention to the photograph, he beamed with pleasure, and pointed out his father.
And in person he was everything you would have expected, and hoped, from his TV appearances: courteous, eyes twinkling with enthusiasm, and completely charming. He said that he had recently received the same photo in the post, and I said yes, my father had sent him a batch of them, which my cousins David and Susan – custodians of our grandfather’s album – had carefully prepared. He said he was really grateful to receive them, as he had very few pictures of his father from his early years, and indeed, sent my Dad a lovely thank you note.
He had even offered to pay, but really, who sends him an invoice? And he might have found some of the photos revealing. On Desert Island Discs earlier the same year he had described his father as demanding and formidable, but some of the photographs might have surprised him, showing Fred as they did in lighter mood.
The expression ‘national treasure’ is much overused, but without doubt applies to Attenborough. Some say you should never meet your heroes. Nonsense. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity.
If you have stood on a mountainside and seen birds flying way below perhaps you experienced a feeling of dominion, tempered by vertigo, the exhilaration and surprise of something seen from an unfamiliar perspective.
And here my mother Kath is the baby of the group: neither of her parents nor her brother are there – perhaps she has been “parked” for the day at her auntie’s house in Wrexham. She is with her cousins Mollie (in white) and Marjorie. In the deck chair is Bella, their mother and Kath’s auntie. The older lady on the left is Jane, an auntie of Bella’s husband.
Kath looks out with a direct, evaluating gaze in which I recognise our older daughter. Mollie and Marjorie stand awkwardly between the seated figures. Bella has a relaxed smile, while Jane’s austere look recalls the demands of the previous generation of photography, which required a neutral expression which could be held through the long exposure.
Kath was especially fond of Mollie, seven years her senior, and I imagine her spending a pleasant day as the centre of attention for her cousins and her auntie. Marjorie’s fiancé Gwilym probably took the photo, as he appears in a separate picture from which Marjorie is absent.
Photography was an expensive business back then, and every picture, good or bad, had to be paid for. But Gwilym worked as the manager of a chemist’s shop, and was able to develop his own photographs. Usually old photos we see are posed, slightly formal affairs, and the spontaneous snaps now so familiar were rare.
Enter Jock the dog. Perhaps he was exiled to the house while the ‘proper’ photo was taken. But now he bounds out for a tummy rub from Mollie, and Gwilym captures the moment.
All eyes are on Mollie and Jock. Marjorie smiles at the scene, but Kath seems not to share her pleasure – perhaps she’s wary of the dog. Her carefully combed hair falls girlishly across her face, and the most fleeting of moments is preserved.
I cannot now ask my mother if she remembers this, or can tell me more about the photo. But how strange and wonderful to be able to see her, more than fifty years younger than I now am, caught on this summer’s day.
Or Jack, as he was usually known. He was our Mum’s Dad, and he died when I was twelve. He and Sallie came down from Wallasey to live with us in Chorleywood when I was seven, so I have clear memories of them both, but perhaps understand them better from an adult perspective – and with the benefit of some research.
I knew Jack as a quiet, thoughtful and kindly man, devoted to Sallie. He was a craftsman: he had worked as a ship’s carpenter, and in his retirement he kept busy, transforming our bedroom with fitted desks, wardrobes and cupboards. He did most of the skilled work required to install a swimming pool in our garden. He made me a fine chest of drawers for my coin collection, which I still have: it was a present for getting into grammar school, and in a display of confidence, work was begun long before I had achieved this.
He loved watching football and cricket on television. A Liverpool man, he sat down to watch the 1965 Cup Final, and I became engrossed, and fiercely partisan once he told me that I had been born in Liverpool. To this day, if I’m challenged on my split allegiance between Watford and Liverpool, I reply Liverpool 2 Leeds 1 – Hunt and St.John in extra time.
I remember him playing cricket in the garden in Oxhey. He knocked the ball back to me, and I held a catch. “Caught and bowled!” he beamed. I was too busy pondering how it could be other than caught and bowled – when only two of us were playing – to guess that he might have deliberately hit me a soft catch.
He read the bible every day, and carefully marked the passages he wanted to return to. He had a gentle humour: one day he was cutting vinyl flooring for our new bedroom, which had a design dotted with different images. “The biscuits are OK” he said, “but the granite’s pretty tough.”
He was painfully shy, and disliked the spotlight. One time Jack and Sallie took me on a visit to their son Philip in York. Philip organised a trip to the circus. The clowns threw beach balls out into the crowd: one went above us. On its way back down, it bounced on Jack’s bald head, and everyone laughed. Jack hated it and his face turned bright red.
I wonder now whether Jack really wanted to come to live down south: he had lived his life as a working man on Merseyside, and in retrospect seemed ill at ease in middle class home counties suburbia: perhaps his wishes were outweighed by Sallie’s desire to be with her daughter and grandsons. And having two energetic and noisy boys around can’t have been ideal for a man who liked tranquillity.
He painted beautifully in watercolours. One of his paintings shows the beech trees at the end of our garden in their autumn colours, and he added the figure of Sallie walking back through the woods, with her dachshund Tumbi at her feet.
Four years after they moved south, when he was 74, Jack acquired a debilitating illness. A bed was moved down to the lounge, where he was nursed with great dedication by Sallie and my mother (a trained nurse) for the remaining months of his life. I’m not proud to recall that my overriding feeling at the time was resentment at the disruption this caused, and at his urgent claim on my mother’s attention. In his sickness, confusion and frustration, Jack – who I had thought a perfect gentleman – would forget himself, and the profane language of the shipyard would spill out in front of his wife and daughter.
This much I remember. After he died, we learned more from Mum: that he had not been Sallie’s first husband. She had been married to a man called Davy. While serving in the First World War with the Royal Engineers, Jack met Tom, Sallie’s older brother.
When visiting Tom, Jack presumably met Sallie and they fell in love. Eventually Sallie divorced Davy – a scandalous and expensive business in the 1920s – and married Jack.
Mum herself only learned of this from Sallie after Jack died. And there were still many details of Jack’s life of which I knew nothing, or if I had ever been told them, I had forgotten. Genealogy has revealed more.
Jack was eleven when his father James died, leaving Jack’s mother Helena with seven children. Within eighteen months, on Christmas Eve 1906, Helena had married James’s older brother, Jack’s uncle John. This marriage was illegal: at the time the law would not allow a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother. So Helena gave her maiden name of Jones, rather than her married name of Brockbank, which would have given her away – as she was now marrying her second Brockbank. John signed his name, while Helena marked X.
They chose the lesser of two evils by breaking this archaic law rather than living “in sin” together. We can imagine the registrar sceptically contemplating Helena, the 39-year old “spinster” who had in fact borne seven children, but deciding not to raise any questions. The marriage was likely practical as much as romantic, with Helena presumably in urgent need of money, while John, himself widowed a few years earlier, still had young children to care for.
Sadly the arrangement didn’t last for long: within ten months they had a son together, but Helena died of childbirth complications. So by the age of fourteen, Jack had lost both of his parents, and as the second oldest child, he presumably had a good deal of responsibility put on his shoulders. By the age of sixteen, he was employed as a boat builder’s apprentice carpenter.
Some time during or after the First World War, he must have met Sallie. Her childhood had common ground with Jack’s, in that her mother had also died young – in her case, at the age of 31, when Sallie was just fifteen months old. And in her case, her father then partnered his deceased wife’s younger sister, although in this case they didn’t marry. If they had, this would also have been illegal: in the nineteenth century there were regular unsuccessful attempts to change this strange biblical law, referred to by the Queen of the Fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe:
“He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister“.
Davy’s divorce petition cites Sallie as having “deserted” him in July 1921 “without reasonable excuse”, and names Jack as the respondent. The petition goes on to colourfully state that Sallie and Jack “frequently committed adultery” in Chester, Runcorn, and “divers other places to your Petitioner unknown”.
This has cast Chester and Runcorn in a new light to me.
When as teenagers we heard of this affair, my brother and I liked to think of Davy as some sort of brute, and of Jack as the handsome knight rescuing her from his clutches. But family anecdotal evidence has provided no support for our fantasy, casting Davy instead as a sweet and gentle soul. In any event, Sallie must have found something she preferred in Jack, and her choice was not an easy one: many in her own family strongly disapproved of her scandalous behaviour – for example her sister Bella, who stood by Sallie, would often row with her husband over the matter.
Divorce was a lengthy business in the 1920s, and the lovers had two children, Philip and my mother Kath, before the divorce was final and Sallie could remarry. My mother always believed herself born after they married: perhaps Sallie decided to spare her this detail.
Last year my daughter got in touch to ask about an inscription she had found in a book of Tennyson poetry we had passed on to her from my parents.
The dedication, dated Christmas 1919, read
“To Sallie, My very dear Wife & closest companion. From her sincere & devoted husband Jack”.
The divorce record tell us that Sallie did not “desert” Davy until 1920, and that Sallie and Jack were unable to marry until early 1927. So what to make of the dedication? Was Jack being presumptuous in calling Sallie his wife as early as 1919? Was he offering her a guarantee that he would marry her as soon as he could? Or perhaps the inscription – or at least the date – was added later to provide evidence to help deflect any questions over Philip and Kath’s legitimacy.
In her later years my mother wrote down her memory of Jack’s experiences looking for work in the 1930s. Life was not easy for her parents:
I gained one further glimpse of Jack’s character when clearing my father’s garage a couple of years ago. I uncovered two issues of a magazine that Jack had edited and part written in 1943. Called “Slipway Scrapbook”, it was produced for employees of William Cubbins Ltd, the shipyard where Jack worked. Jack was a committed trade union man: but the tone of his writing was that the workers should now focus on winning the war rather than battling with management:
History yields up more facts than understanding. But now when I look at a photograph of the old man I knew, I think of a man who served at Gallipoli and survived. I think of a man who fell in love with and courted a married woman, and I think of a man desperately seeking work in the depression. Mostly, I think of the vast difference between his early years and – separated by sixty-two years, two generations and two world wars – my own comfortable childhood.
But memories trump history – my mother used to say that a person has not died while anyone alive still remembers them. I remember Jack with his pipe in his mouth, although often it was not lit. He used his old Ogden’s St Bruno Flake tins to store his screws and nails. He had a soft odour of pipe smoke and tobacco: as a child I liked it – it was his smell, and I loved him.