I’m posting by special request this week, I mentioned my grandfather, my father’s father, in a post on a forum and was asked if I’d say a bit more about him so, fresh from Setting Tripwires for Granny, here is a little bit about him …
Gin-Gin was my father’s father, StJohn Bell (Gin-Gin is pronounced exactly like it’s written, as if someone’s saying the name of the drink, twice. Much like his name, StJohn—which is actually pronounced sin-gin—and indeed, that’s probably where Gin-Gin came from). He was a larger than life character, I think he worked for the Sun Alliance, was chairman of the district council and was full of life. He was always laughing and he had a gold tooth which could catch the light when he smiled. He was known for his draconianly right wing views. That said, despite views which, in those days, put him firmly on the right with Norman Tebbit and company towards the lunatic fringe of the Conservative Party, he would probably be standing a little to the left of centre in the modern version such is the gargantuan crazy-quotient in both that party and politics these days.
Gin-Gin had white hair which, like my father’s and my oldest uncle’s receded very slowly from the age of about thirty – it never totally disappeared. He had a hooked patrician nose, very bushy eyebrows, underneath which sat a pair of green/blue (I think) twinkly eyes, a ready (and extremely loud) laugh and as I mentioned one gold tooth, his eye tooth. Yeh, if you’re read my books you’ll know exactly which character is based upon his looks. He had a marked and somewhat subversive sense of humour. Indeed, humour was how he communicated with the world. He was not keen on political correctness, citing it as simply reverse prejudice but I never saw him talk down to anyone, ever. He was a strong character, with a great deal of charm and he communicated with the world through humour. He probably should have been a stand up comedian. If it had been more of a gentleman’s profession, perhaps he would have been. Despite having polar opposite political views to me on many things, I found him very easy to get on with because at his heart, what drove him was a genuine desire to be decent to people and to make the world better for everyone.
He was sometimes, as he told me once, ‘a very bad man’ (although possibly not as bad as he thought he was) in that he had a sense of the absurd and a very satirical bent to his humour that meant anything he said about other people tended to be a little bit close to the bone. Often it would be because he came uncomfortably close to the truth – albeit a little exaggerated – in his summations of people. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and if he thought you were a fool, or didn’t like you, you’d know. Although you could often change his mind by standing up to him, especially if you used humour.
However, having painted him as a bit of a draconian scary dude, the side of him I saw was jovial, always smiling, quick witted, mercurial, constantly joking and brimming with joi de vivre. I liked him enormously because at the bottom of it all, he was simply a natural rebel, like my dad, and so am I.
As a child he used to tell me stories about his misspent youth which my mother and father, and possibly Gran-Gran, my grandmother, may well have worried I’d try and replicate. In fact I really didn’t need any encouragement from Gin-Gin to get up to mischief although there are a number of stories which had me in awe as a youngster including one occasion when he talked about his time at Lancing College. Strangely, I had completely forgotten about this one until I read tale of something similar perpetrated at a WW2 RAF base.
The loos at Lancing in my grandfather’s day were somewhat primitive, they were fairly primitive in my day in parts of the school, but we’re talking properly primitive here. In Gin-Gin’s time the school was for boys only so most of the loos were constructed along the same model, urinals one side and then a series of stalls. The stalls were, essentially, one long bench seat with partitions and doors. Underneath the bench seat was a channel in which water was continuously running washing away any bombs as they were dropped, so to speak. This channel was boxed in, so you sat on a box, essentially, with water running beneath you. Gin-Gin went into the upstream cubicle, closest to the wall and locked the door. From his pocket he removed a paper boat then he waited until an opportune time when enough of the other cubicles were full. He gave everyone time to sit down, open their books, newspapers etc and then he set fire to the paper boat, dropped it through the hole in his cubicle and swiftly and silently exited. He listened to the irritated shouts and screams as the boat passed under each bottom in each cubicle on the way down. Then he ran away laughing.
Personally, I’ve always thought that public school is an excellent preparation should you be unfortunate enough to end up in prison at any point, be incarcerated in a lunatic asylum or be compelled to spend your twilight years in an old people’s home. I suspect that when, in later life, Gin-Gin did end up in an old people’s home, his behaviour may have been reminiscent of his behaviour at school.
In his twilight years, Gin-Gin was in a home for quite some time, a place called Pax Hill, just outside Lindfield. He didn’t enjoy it but I’m not sure he’d have enjoyed anywhere, to be honest. It was actually a lovely place, the care workers were intelligent, capable people and they were very good to him. Furthermore, some were blokes, which was important for Gin-Gin as he liked and needed male company. Gin-Gin was partially sighted and had a colostomy which he couldn’t sort out without being able to see. Otherwise, he was pretty much on the ball, whereas, unfortunately the other residents were mostly suffering from forms of dementia.
The home was in a house that had once belonged to a friend of Gin-Gin’s. He told me how it had been filled with very smart sculptures and how the house had been commandeered by the Canadian army during the war. They’d used the sculptures for target practice until a friend who knew some big wig in the British Army got a general to talk to their general and explain that the statues were all quite old, some from the Renaissance, and some genuinely ancient. Canadians were considered a bit rum by the locals throughout the area for some time afterwards! Anyway, there was a sitting room downstairs where we used to sit with Gin-Gin and in said sitting room was a budgrigar in a cage. The more mobile of the daft old ladies used to come and coo over it so it was clearly a source of great comfort. Some of them were rather syrupy about their interactions with said bugie and Gin-Gin found it all a bit toe curling. So he decided to do something about it.
One day I was visiting him and as we sat there one of the little old dears came to talk to the bird. I’ve no idea what her name was but her husband was called Ambrose and had been a priest and she talked about him a lot, lauding his many holy, kindly and generally wonderful attributes. Gin-Gin found her a bit Holier Than Thou. Perhaps she was just high-minded in that way that believes laughter and humour are somewhat disrespectful, not to mention a bit of a waste of time; time that could be used in more weighty and serious pursuits. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that one comes across people like this occasionally, folks with no time for levity. I confess, I try to avoid them as much as possible and I advise you to do the same, but I’m digressing.
As well as not being blessed with much of a sense of humour the lady who had been married to Ambrose was the kind of person who would faint rather than laugh at a knob gag. Gin-Gin was the kind of person who would roar with laughter at a knob gag, Gin Gin liked to laugh full stop and by the time he got into the home his sense of humour was about all he had left. So I suspect the lady disliked his jokes and I suspect that Gin-Gin, knowing she disliked his jokes, was at pains to make more of them whenever she was around. Chalk and cheese, basically.
Some of the lady’s stories about the great goodness of her husband were, Gin-Gin felt, aimed squarely at him in a ‘you’re-a-bad-man-and-my-wonderful-Ambrose-wasn’t’ kind of way maybe he even felt there was a dash of ‘why-are-you-here-when-he’s-gone?’ It may well have been like that but, most likely, she just missed Ambrose and eased her sadness by talking about him. She might even have felt that Gin-Gin and Ambrose would have got on and wished they could have met one another. Who knew. But before long, Gin-Gin had nicknamed her, ‘Relic of the Sainted Ambrose’ Ambrose being her husband about whom she used to wax lyrical.
One day, she came into the drawing room at the home and started to talk to the budgie while Gin-Gin and I were chatting. There was silence for a moment and then he whispered,
‘Listen to what the bird says.’
So we stopped talking, which, looking back on it, must have made Sainted Ambrose’s Mrs wonder if we were discussing her and must have only fuelled her distrust of my grandfather. She began to chat to the budgie in what, I have to hand it to Gin-Gin, was a pretty nauseating way.
‘Whose a sweet iddy-diddy ickle birdie then.’
That kind of thing.
Gin-Gin rolled his eyes at me.
‘Gugger,’ said the Budgie. Gin-Gin’s face split into a huge grin and the gold tooth appeared.
‘What was that sweetie?’ asked the old dear.
‘Gugger,’ said the bird.
‘Awww, what are you trying to say sweetie?’ she asked.
‘Gugger,’ said the bird and then it whistled.
After a little more cooing and fussing, and with a daggers look at Gin-Gin, Ambrose’s wife and Relic left.
‘Come on,’ said Gin-Gin and he led me over to the budgie’s cage.
He didn’t have great sight so he felt around for the bars a bit and then gave them a gentle tap and whistled. The bird put his head on one side and whistled back.
‘Who’s a silly little bugger then?’ said Gin-Gin
‘Who’s a silly little gugger then?’ said the bird.
An enormous, mischievous smile spread across Gin-Gin’s face.
‘Bugger!’ he said.
‘Gugger,’ said the bird.
‘That’s right, you’ve nearly got it!’ He turned to me, ‘I’ve taught their bloody budgie to say bugger.’
Guffawing evilly, we returned to our seats.
Later I told Mum and Dad and they started giggling and told me a similar story.
Miss Watson, another lady in the home, the only one Gin-Gin got on well with, happened upon him in the drawing room, standing in front of the cage going,
‘Bugger! Bugger! Come on! You, can say it! Bugger!’
Stifling her laughter, Miss Watson crept away before he’d noticed her and got the matron, because Miss Watson knew that matron would find the whole thing as funny as she did. Which was true. The matron then passed this on to Mum and Dad remarking that she was very glad the bird couldn’t handle the B sound and the other old ladies seemed to be too innocent to appreciate what it was actually saying.
My parents and my brother and I reckoned it was a lucky choice of word since if he’d gone for fuck or sod it would probably have managed to repeat him verbatim – even ‘gollocks’ would have been less subtle.
However, his efforts with the budgie did come back to haunt him eventually. He had also taught it to wolf whistle, something it did very well, and one day, as he sat in one of the comfy chairs, minding his own business, one of the prissier inmates came into the room and the budgie wolf whistled. To Gin-Gin’s horror she rounded on him and accused him of harassing her! Matron was called to intervene and in the end ruffled feathers were smoothed down but only when the budgie wolf whistled again, at a point when it couldn’t possibly have been Gin-Gin. But, poor old boy, his name was mud with the ladies after that, except Miss Watson, with whom he got on well. That said, he probably didn’t care that the ladies didn’t like him. From what I gathered they were a bit stuck up and I got the impression Miss Watson wasn’t that keen on them either. Certainly, she only seemed to chat to Gin-Gin and did her own thing a lot of the time, going for walks or arranging trips out with friends.