Taid

Nain, Taid, Sheila David and Susan 2
Nain and Taid on Fairbourne beach

“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.”
“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.

Taid family group 2
c. 1897. Bob at top right, Ifan bearded, sitting, next to Elin holding child.  Richard and Evan John standing from left, Ellen seated third from left.

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.

taid census
Taid002

Bob had pacifist inclinations, and the local newspaper records him in the same year arguing in debate that war was more damaging than drunkenness.

Temperance

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.

Taid and Nain enjoy a picnic, 1911

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.

School group - Fred Attenborough back row 3rd from left, Taid 4th from left, Nain 4th from left001
Bob standing, fourth from left, Maggie seated, second from left.  Fred Attenborough standing, far left

1914 provided brutal evidence of how much harm war could do to humanity. Bob’s poor eyesight put him Medical Category B, which meant that, as a schoolteacher, he was not called up. 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.

Taid MBE Investiture letter001
Invitation to M.B.E. Investiture.  Not sure about the date of the letter…
Taid at MBE ceremony001
Taid receives his certificate for fifty years’ service to the National Savings Movement in 1966

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:

“EVENING THE WILD WOODS AMONG”

When I was six years old, my father was promoted to a head teacher’s post, with the requirement that he should reside in the head teacher’s house a hundred yards or so from the school. This meant that he sold the house that he was in the process of buying, leaving him with some cash in hand, which he used in part to furnish the new house. Among his acquisitions at the time I remember a small billiard table, and a large picture which hung over the fireplace in the living room. The picture was of a leafy path winding through an autumn-tinted wood; in the centre of the picture were two rabbits, sitting on the path, contemplating the scenery. The title of the picture, written in script, was “Evening the Wild Woods Among”. Some years later, as I approached my years of discrimination, it dawned on me that this title was rather comical, and outrageously twee. Imagine my delight to find that my mother’s opinion on the matter coincided with mine. Her sense of humour ran exactly parallel with mine, but I’m afraid that my father sometimes found our amusement not always in the best of taste.

As a postscript to this tale, it was a matter of great satisfaction to discover that when I took my intended bride home to meet my parents, she read the title beneath the picture, and could scarcely control her mirth.

Evening. The Wild Woods Among
Evening.  The Wild Woods Among by Joseph Farquharson, R.A.

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.

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Taid’s was the first full 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 October wind. It couldn’t matter to Taid, but the loneliness and desolation of the place frightened me, and my own 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.

pantclyd
Ifan and Elin in front of Pantclyd, Llanuwchllyn, c.1900
Pantclyd in 2020

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.

Nain

Nain in Brynmarian, Dolgellau about 1938

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 and Gan-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 enjoy a picnic, 1911

Nain was born in Toxteth Park, Liverpool in 1884. She met Taid 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.

Nain front row, second from left. Taid back row, fourth from left. Top left is Fred Attenborough, father of Richard and David.

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.

BOXING DAY 1963

My mother died on Boxing Day. We were sitting up in bed having our morning cup of tea, when my brother rang to tell us. It was a shock, of course, but not really a surprise; we had had a feeling, when we saw her in the little cottage hospital in Wales, that we would not see her again. Perhaps we should have gone to see her more often, but it was a long way, and it is not as if we could have done anything. They had looked after her very well in the hospital, and so they should, for she was one of a handful of women who had fought to keep it going thirty years before.

One thing that did surprise us was the reaction of our younger, seven-year-old son. The ten year-old took the news calmly and sadly, but the younger one, usually so capable of controlling his feelings, exploded in a fury of tears and rage; he hadn’t wanted her to die, he said.

Kath’s parents had been staying with us over Christmas, and they immediately insisted that we should have our breakfast, pack a bag and go. They would look after the boys, and that was that. I am not sure at what time we drove off, but it must have been quite early, because it was still light when we arrived, and that was in the days before motorways speeded things up. We shared the driving, but Kath hated the narrow Welsh roads, twisting and turning between dry-stone walls, with no pavements. As we arrived at the familiar little gate above the house, our friends Glanmor and Jean came out, Glanmor in his iron leg supports having hauled himself up the steep steps of slate from the courtyard below. They had been to sit with my father; your cousin Margaret is with him now, they said.

Margaret was my father’s favourite niece; almost fifty years earlier, she used to visit my parents regularly at their home in Liverpool as a welcome relief from the rigours of a nurse’s training. Now, having retired, she was known throughout this part of the country simply as “Matron”. We went down the steps and into the house. Margaret and my father were talking together softly in Welsh, their first language; they were both more comfortable in Welsh, rather than in the English learnt later in the schoolroom. Margaret soon went home to her village; later, my brother and his wife arrived – their child-minding had taken a little longer to arrange than ours had. My father wound up the grandfather clock, and that was the end of Boxing 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 she had a lifelong abhorrence of alcohol: 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!”

Nain and Taid, with Aelwyn (left) and Glyn

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.

Addressing unfairness in the Virgin Money London Marathon and Boston Marathon qualifying times

img_2136
About to decline a jelly baby

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 2.32.16 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 65.58%, 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.

London Good For Age001

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 qualifying001

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 – which is particularly disappointing in view of Boston’s mixed history with female runners.

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.

The Voyage of the Alpha Beta

Mull001
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.
Mull003
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.
 
Mull002
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.
 
Mull004
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!
 
(25 July 2002)
****************************************************
 

Interlogue

Year on year has quickly stacked –
The prophecy becomes a fact:
Though we parted as eleven
We come back now as only seven:
Kath is gone, and sorely missed
Speff, in Hightown, getting…well
Lindsay? Lending helping hands
Robyn? Other travel plans.
So here we are, anticipating
A little more precipitating:
Let’s follow our success with seagulls –
Time to go and find those eagles!
 
(August 2010)
 
****************************************************
 

Pilgrimage

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!”

(August 2010)

 

A brush with greatness

In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.

plaque
 

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.

 
parrot
(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 had known nothing about this.  Dad explained that his father and mother – 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 sometimes 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.

 
 
Teachers at Granby Street School, Liverpool
Fred Attenborough is standing at the far right.  My grandfather Bob is standing, fourth from the left, and my grandmother Maggie is seated second from the left: they married three years later.
 
 
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.
 
 
Attenborough note001
 
 
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.
 
 
Sacrifice of Fred, at Port Mulgrave
The sacrifice of Fred
 
 
The expression ‘national treasure’ is much overused, but without doubt applies to Sir David.  Some say you should never meet your heroes.  Nonsense.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity.

Two photographs from 1933

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.

Gan-gan

jack

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 otherwise – when only two of us were playing – to suspect that he might have deliberately hit me a soft catch to bring the game to an end.

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.

tom and jack001
Jack (right) with Tom

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.

john and helena marriage certificate001

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.

sallie and jack

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.

dedication

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.

For Dad

(Written in July 2009 for my father, Aelwyn, to celebrate his 90th birthday)

The Sincerest Form

Most teenagers have an exaggerated idea of their potential. And when I was a teenager, my ambition knew no bounds. All very pleasant, I thought, to have a wonderful wife, to live in a nice house backing onto woods in Chorleywood with two kids and a dog, to commute into London every day on the Met line. But surely, there must be more to life?

Maybe. But when it turned out that the first house we saw that Debbie and I both really liked was in Chorleywood, I didn’t fight the impulse to buy it. And I find myself going into the City in the same actual rolling stock – built in 1961, it says.

Well, I didn’t set out to copy you quite so literally. But maybe, underneath it all, I wanted our children to have just as happy a childhood as Rob and I did.

48 Brookdene Avenue

I remember riding my large white tricycle up and down the pavement.

I remember the coal-man, even dirtier than the dustman. And the Corona lorry, raspberryade please. And the baker’s van with the vent in the roof, la-la-la-la-la.

I remember walking to Oaklands Avenue Infants’ School with Susan Knussen, and the shoots and tree roots pushing through the tarmac opposite Clive’s house.

I remember going for tea with the Finches, the Smiths, the Stevenses and the Morrisons. Not the Taylors please.

I remember Saturday afternoons “helping” Dad in the garden, hearing the roar from Vicarage Road in the distance when Watford scored.

I remember the steep driveway, and Mum recounting being followed up it by another car in a “pea-souper”.

I remember sunny afternoons in the Wendy house, listening to 45s on the red Dansette, or Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops on Sunday afternoon.

I remember coming home from Sunday school to find that Dad had made us up an amazing “den” at the side of the house. And coming back from a stay in Wallasey to find swings at the top of the garden.

I remember the Saturday morning when Dad was up early to field Robin and Ricky, so Mum could have a lie-in. It was my day for the gold-top. A nice bowl of Shreddies, with sugar and cream, on the red fold-out formica table-top. I picked up my spoon to start. And the table folded: crockery, cream and Shreddies everywhere. Tears welled in my eyes. “Don’t worry”, said Dad. He wiped me down, cleared up the mess from the floor, and made me up a new bowl, as good as before. Everything was all right again.

England v South Africa, 1965

England were 240 for four wickets and heading for a match-winning lead against South Africa at Lord’s when Ken Barrington, on 91, played perhaps the most fateful stroke in the 1965 Test series. He pushed the ball to mid-wicket and scampered down the pitch. Colin Bland ran towards the square-leg umpire. In one thrilling movement he scooped up the ball, swung round his body and threw down the stumps at the bowler’s end. The run-out of Barrington, which was followed by Bland’s performing a similar feat against JM Parks, was the turning point in the 1965 Test matches.”

And I was there, at Lord’s, with my Dad. The sun shone, and there wasn’t a happier boy in the ground. I couldn’t believe I was seeing these famous sportsmen for real. My only disappointment was not seeing Ken Barrington complete his century. He had been stuck on 91 for ages, and even today, when I go to collect Cracker from his stay with Janet at 91 Hilliard Road in Northwood, I remember the number as a “Ken Barrington”.

Dolgellau Holidays

Dad did the first stretch of the journey, and then Mum would take over for the middle section along the A5 – that terrifying three-lane highway, in the days before they were abolished for being too dangerous. Feeling lucky? Try the middle lane. Brownhills, the Dun Cow. Then to Whitchurch, and the car sickness inducing road over the hills.

At last to Pantclyd. The smell of wet moss, the fragrant hedge. The stone lion’s mouth spouting water in the garden. The big stone-flagged house, full of cooking smells and mystery. Or later to Henfaes, to find Taid dozing in front of the cricket, or reading Y Dydd. Rob and Rik up early to find our “keep quiet” bribe in a ceramic jar. Usually a Milky Way.

Daily trips to Fairbourne. George III, twenty more runs in pub cricket. The tank traps, the Springfield Hotel (“looking a bit Dusty”). The railway – Sian, Sylvia, Rachel. Rob and Rik leaning out, trying to grab bunches of grass. The café opposite the beach – Lola by the Kinks on the jukebox, pinball machines. Dad going for lunch: cherryade, Kunzle cakes, gritty sandwiches. Mum, Dad and Rob on wooden surfboards. Peeling backs, Rob brown, Rik red. Watching the sunshine in Barmouth. But then Barmouth in the rain, with seagull cries echoing around the cliffs. Endlessly throwing a football into the waves, to “save” it as it when it reached me. Beach cricket, can’t be out first ball.

Over to The Rock, Aline’s house, huge and rambling, with clutter everywhere. Mum reeling from a huge sherry, Rik not sure about ginger beer. The apparently endless garden, with its secret corners and hidden lawns.

To see the sunrise on Cadair, (dominating the scene). I worried the night before about how we’d get there in the dark. I’d forgotten about headlights. Drinking flasks of soup and coffee, huddled against stone walls. Rain, wind, and at last, daylight and the peak. Down by the Fox’s path through slate scree. Home for breakfast. What an adventure!

Christmas

There was wanting “points”.

There were Robin and Ricky calling their requests up the chimney to Santa.

There was the King William’s College Quiz, and no help from the internet.

There were Christmas carols at Crusaders.

There was Adeste Fideles coming from downstairs.

There was the family dinner on Christmas Eve, tingling with anticipation.

There were presents under the tree.

There was trying to get to sleep, knowing that otherwise Santa might not come, but hearing furtive movements downstairs.

There was the Snow Queen and Christmas Carol.

There was waking up early (but a little later each year).

There was a new penny, an orange, a walnut, a Hogg Robinson Diary.

There was a walk after opening the presents, and the sun always shone.

There were sprouts.

There was Morecambe and Wise

There was Glyn, Sheila, David, Susan, June, Sarah, lan and Jane – and Mac with the pink shirt and purple bow tie.

Swimming Pool at Tall Trees

It would start with the first hot day in May, when Rob and Rik would clamour for the use of the swimming pool. A pump and hosepipe siphon would be set to work to drain away the green sludge. In we would go, in the blazing heat, with buckets, mops, cloths and dustpans to scoop out the last of the sludge, and marvel at the myriad wriggling creatures. Then we would scrub the sides to a gleaming sky blue, and Dad would patch any holes.

Finally we would fill the pool with icy water, and as soon as it was full, the sun would disappear behind big black clouds until July.

But how good it was to come home from school on a hot day, get straight into my trunks, and charge straight through the living room and into the pool. How good were those endless summer days spent floating on the lilo, drifting off with the tones of John Arlott’s voice in the background. How glad Taid was to see Rob’s female friends come round for a swim.

But eventually the shadow of those Tall Trees would creep up the lawn, we would go for one last swim, and shivering and leaving wet footprints on the red stair carpet, we would rush up for a bath.

Watford FC Memories

Our first away match at Spurs in the First Division, 6th November 1982. We walked to White Hart Lane while Mum had a nap in my flat. Great that Watford were even playing there: then we nicked a late goal and made it 1-0 for a famous victory. Then home for a fish and chip supper.

Watford v Aston Villa 26th February 1983 in the rain – we were tied at 1-1, and Watford battered the Villa defence continuously, but it just wouldn’t go in. The opposition taunted us with “boring, boring, Watford”, and the rain carried on pelting down. Finally, in injury time, Watford’s persistence paid off: Wilf Rostron scored, and the place went berserk.

Watford v FC Kaiserslautern, 28th September 1983. Watford were 3-1 down from the first leg, and had a mountain to climb. But we needn’t have worried, in those charmed Graham Taylor days. Watford came out and played like a hurricane: we stormed into a two goal lead in the first ten minutes – already enough to go through on our away goal. But we added a third in the second half, just to make sure.

And of course, walking through the underpass back to the car park after another happy afternoon at Vicarage Road: turning on the car radio, and joining in with the “Sports Report” theme…Perumty Dumty Dum de Dum, de Diddle de Dee de Dum…

Holidays with Nana and Grandad

I remember hearing a child calling on our first new generation holiday in Cornwall, and looking up to see Robyn smiling and waving from the sunlit window.

I remember Nana clinging on tight to Rachel as Grandad went gliding.

I remember walking to the lighthouse, with Rachel in a papoose.

I remember watching Michael Owen scoring against Argentina in the turret flat in Glengorm.

I remember walking with Dad on the paths around Sainte Cecile.

I remember gathering in Cornwall for the solar eclipse in August 1999

I remember Alice singing “Prettiest Little Jeep You Ever Saw” on the last night in Perugia.

I remember the house in Spain with Rachel running ahead of me to find the lights, and Alice teetering on the edge of the pool with her armbands, but never falling in.

I remember Mum and Dad beaming after the opera.