Tag Archives: Tall Family Tales

Farting around …

Today I’m cheating, I have twenty minutes to write tomrrow’s blog post before my lovely bruv, wife and kids arrive for the weekend. It’s going to be short.  I was going to do something quite deep and metaphysical but as it is, it’s going to be an excerpt from one of my works in progress. So here, from Tripwires, is more wittering about my past I bring you …

The Kitchen Fart

One of the things I love about my parents is that while they taught me that it was important to show consideration for others, they also taught me another very important art, that while consideration is key, there are other instances where it is very important not to give a flying fuck.

The love of farts. What a way to start, but even for British people, my family seems to be peculiarly obsessed. Perhaps it’s just that we share a love of the absurd and there is so much of that to be mined from farts. When I was a teenager, one grandmother, Nye and one grandfather, Gin-Gin, were still around. Gin-Gin was in a home but Nye lived on her own for a while and during that time, she would sometimes come to stay. Obviously, our house wasn’t really ideal for an older person who had trouble getting up and down.

Nye often had to be helped out of our arm chairs because they were a bit too low. When this happened the exertion would often result in her letting loose a thunderous fart. Obviously, despite having a bit of a sense of mischief, Nye was clearly of a view that there are some things a Lady doesn’t mention – and farts appeared to be one of them. So of course, everyone would pretend that the incredibly obvious high-decibel report hadn’t happened. Nye would be handed her sticks and with a quieter fart to mark each stride she would shuffle slowly across the room. Luckily, what the good lord was kind enough to give her in volume, he left out in aroma. We would hear making her way through the hall to the downstairs loo, still farting quietly all the way. Once we heard the door close we would explode with giggles and when she came back after her wee, we’d tell her some terrible joke to explain away our red faces, streaming eyes and uncontrollable laughing.

Amusingly, my Mum’s farts sound exactly the same as Nye’s did, less amusingly, so do mine.

However, while Nye pretended, against all odds, that her farts didn’t exist, Mum has never had any qualms about making some remark about it, or just giggling if she accidentally let one go. One of the most used phrases in our family is, ‘where ere you be let your air blow free, I held mine in, twas the death of me’. If think it comes from a Scottish tombstone somewhere (although the original uses the Scottish dialect ‘gang’ rather than blow which has a slightly different meaning – go/wander – but hey, the sentiment is similar).

The other day, I was with Mum in the kitchen and since it was Mum and it would make her giggle, when I felt one bubbling up, I didn’t bother to ease it quietly out but let it go. Several minutes of childish giggling ensued and Mum said, ‘Good heavens! That sounds exactly like one of mine.’

To which I replied, ‘Just imagine it, if one of the carers has heard it, they won’t know which of us it was!’

‘Or they’ll think it was me,’ she said. ‘I’m worse than Nye these days, I fart every time I stand up.’

After we’d finished chuckling about this, Mum reminded me of an occasion when Dad was still a housemaster. We were in the kitchen, me doing my homework at the table, Mum baking. Two of the girls in one of Dad’s sets were having trouble with some of the Greek they were learning so he had offered them an extra lesson, to explain it all again. They were with him in the next room, the study. Mum had offered them a cup of tea of course, which, Mum being Mum, came with flapjack, home made cake and biscuits. The girls had accepted Mum’s offer so now she had put a tray on the table opposite me and was laying out cups and saucers. She and went to the larder at the other end of the room, to get the biscuit tin. As she made her way across the room she let out what might be the loudest fart I’ve ever heard. It sounded like someone dragging a heavy chair twenty yards across a tiled floor in a room above.

‘Ooo that’s better,’ she said once the furniture had stopped shaking enough for me to be able to hear her, and then both of us fell about laughing. Suddenly, I remembered Dad’s lesson in the next room. On the down side, the doors to both the kitchen and the study were open, on the up side, though ‘next door’ the actual entrance to the study was about four metres away down a corridor.

‘Oh no! Mum, what if the girls heard?’ I asked keenly aware that the attitude to farts displayed by myself and my mum was not standard among females.

‘It’ll be alright, they can’t possibly have heard it from there.’

I thought about the number of times I’d heard my mum fart in the kitchen while watching TV in the drawing room which was a lot further away from the kitchen then the dining room, where the girls where.

‘Seriously Mum, I think they will have done, it was impressively loud.’

‘I do hope not,’ said Mum and we began to giggle some more. ‘Never mind,’ she said as she filled the teapot, ‘we’ll soon know. I’m going to take this through now.’

She came back a few minutes later looking a slightly chastened, but only slightly.

‘I think you’re right,’ she said. ‘Your father clearly didn’t hear a thing, but the girls did, because when I went in with the tea they got the giggles.’

Later I attended reunion at school for women in my house and to my delight, I met the two girls in question and after much giggling as I related the story they confirmed that yes, they had heard the fart loud and clear.

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Out of the mouths of babes and … budgies.

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.

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The lady vanishes, or at least, the kids do …

So a light one this week from the non fiction family stories thing. The other day, there was a spoof article from SuffolkGazette – a jokey ‘news’ site on Facebook; ‘Girl, 9, disappears after putting on cream that makes you look 10 years younger.’  It made me think about this story about the antics my grandmother and great aunt got up to one evening when they were youngsters. My grandmother told me this story, herself, so it does come straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. She swore it was true and my mother thinks it quite probable that it is, so here, for your delectation …

The Vanishing Cream …

In this tale, Nye, my grandmother, was twelve years old, which would make Aunty, her sister, four. Nye comes over as a great deal less streetwise than twelve year olds today, but then, it was another era and having lived with ‘Granny’ Mum’s view was that she would have kept her children as young and naive as possible for as long as possible. Nye and Aunty didn’t go to school. They had a governess, who was French. When this story takes place I can only assume that she was elsewhere, or believed her charges to be in bed. 

Anyway, Nye had discovered a pot of Pond’s Vanishing Cream on her mother’s dressing table and was extremely intrigued as to what it did. Vanishing cream was first introduced in 1892 and got the name because it’s a cream that disappears when it is rubbed on. Nye’s Mum would probably have used it as a moisturiser or a colourless base for makeup. However, Nye had convinced herself that her mother wore it to make herself invisible. Reading a bit too much E Nesbitt, perhaps? Who knows, but whatever the reason, one night, while their parents were downstairs entertaining friends to dinner and the Governess was … elsewhere … Nye and Aunty, went ‘exploring’ around the house and crept into their mother’s bedroom. 

Immediately, Nye’s eye lit on the pot.

‘Look!’ she said, showing it to her little sister. ‘Vanishing cream! If we rub this on ourselves it will turn us invisible.’

‘Really?’ asked Aunty, saucer-eyed.

‘Yes. That’s how Mother knows when we have been naughty in lessons,’ Nye explained, never thinking, for a moment, that this might be because the Governess reported it to her when she reported on their progress.

The girls decided they would test how effective the cream was. Aunty went first and was disappointed to discover that she could still see herself. Nye put some cream on, with similar results. 

The two of them thought for a moment. 

‘I know what it is,’ said Nye. ‘We should undress because otherwise, even if people can’t see us our clothes will be visible.’

‘Is that why we can see one another?

‘I don’t know, let’s try.’

The two of them took of their clothes and put vanishing cream on literally every part of their bodies, I do hope, for their mother’s sake, that it wasn’t too expensive. They stood back and regarded one another.

‘Can you see me?’ asked Nye.

‘Yes,’ said Aunty.

‘I can see you too.’

‘Perhaps it isn’t working,’ said Aunty.

Nye thought for a moment. 

‘There is a way we can find out.’

‘How?’ 

‘I’ll tell you …’

Aunty was all set to try Nye’s cunning plan and so together, the two of them, still as starkers as the day they were born, crept downstairs. 

From the dining room came the sound of cutlery chinking gently on plates and genteel voices having refined and proper dinner time conversation. Nye pushed the door open a crack. Nobody took any notice. She turned back to her sister.

‘Remember, they can hear us, even if they can’t see us, so we mustn’t talk,’ she whispered, and put her finger to her lips. Aunty mimicked the gesture and nodded.

Nye opened the door a little more and slipped into the room.

The two girls stood there, in silence.

No-one reacted.

Nye walked round the table. The grown ups carried on talking, oblivious. Aunty’s hands flew to her mouth to try and muffle her gasp of delight. She went to join Nye and the two of them danced, cavorted and skipped about the room in silence. The grown ups made absolutely no sign of noticing anything. Perhaps if they were a bit older, our two heroines might have noticed Grandpop’s demeanour take on a somewhat stoic set, or might have seen the visible loss of colour on their mother’s face. They might even have noticed the atmosphere among the adults become a little strained, seen how a couple of the guests eyes bulged or heard how the conversation had taken on a somewhat stilted tone. But as it was, they were twelve and four, and not yet sufficiently aware of human nature to hoist in any subtleties like that.

After about ten minutes cavorting about without being seen got boring so Aunty and Nye left the room and returned to their bedroom; upstairs, next to the nursery. The Vanishing Cream Experiment had been an unmitigated success and the two of them slept soundly that night, dreaming of the wonderful things they would be able to do and places they would be able to visit now that they could become invisible.

The following morning, Nye and Aunty heard the governess being told off, extensively. When the two of them were called in to see Granny and Grandpop in the drawing room after breakfast they knew something was up. 

‘What do you think you were doing last night?’ asked Granny. 

‘Sleeping?’ asked Nye with more hope than conviction.

‘Before that. When you were cavorting about the dinner table divest of every single stitch of clothing.’

Nye was surprised. 

‘Did you see us?’ she asked. 

‘Of course I did.’

Oh dear. Although, thinking about it, maybe family members could see one another, yes, Nye reflected. That would explain why Aunty and her could see one another, too. However, she was sure none of the guests had noticed.

‘But we thought we were invisible,’ said Aunty.

‘Why on earth would you think that?’ asked Grandpop.

‘Because we were wearing vanishing cream,’ Nye explained, ‘and that’s why no-one else noticed us.’

‘You utter fools! Of course they noticed you!’ said Granny. 

She heaved a sigh and then Grandpop stepped in and went on to explain that some things are ‘not quite nice’ and those things are ‘not talked about’ and that two nude child children cavorting around the table at dinner would fall into the category of ‘not quite nice’ and ‘not talked about’ hence the gathered guests would do what any British person should do when confronted with such a disgusting spectacle. Ignore it stoically until it went away.

Nye was in a home by the time she told me this story and sadly, Aunty had already died, so I was never able to get her side of the story, and I’d have loved to have heard it. I remember Nye saying, 

‘Can you imagine it? There they were eating while two little girls danced around the dinner table naked and they were so stuffy they pretended we weren’t there.’

She clearly felt it served them right. I suspect Granny and Grandpop may have had more of a sense of humour than family history gives them credit for. But it’s quite clear that, whether or not they did, Nye was unrepentant, if not at the time then certainly in her late eighties.

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A family take on remembrance

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to post about our sneaky weekend away to look at the battlefields of the Somme. What better time to do it than today, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War?

It’s complicated, but basically, McOther had two grandfathers on his dad’s side, one who gave him his name and one who is his blood relative. Both are held in love and revered. Name grandfather was injured at the Somme so we went to have a look at where he was. McMini is very keen on flying and aviation, mainly from the Second World War but also from the First World War, especially Baron Von Richoften. So as well as going to see the spot where McOther’s namesake grandfather was shot we thought we’d see if we could find the area where the Red Baron was shot down, too.

McOther’s grandfather was found in no-man’s land by the Germans, with a sizeable head wound, taken to the first aid station and patched up. He had lost almost a third of his brain and was repatriated in a prisoners swap. The Germans, I think it was the Germans, had given him a metal plate in his head. Subsequently, he was paid £200 each year to go up to his nearest teaching hospital – Glasgow, I think – where the metal plate would be removed and eager medial students would crane in to see what a live brain looked like. He made his living on this – it’s the equivalent of … I dunno, about £8.5 – £10k today? As much as some people earned, anyway, and definitely close to a living.

Naturally McOther’s family were very pleased to get their son home with a Blighty wound that would ensure he didn’t have to go back to the front. However, there were hidden aspects of his injury that only became apparent as he grew older. Part of the problem was that the large part of his brain that was lost was to do with maturity and its departure meant that his personal, emotional and mental development stalled; frozen, forever at eighteen, the age he was when he was shot. This wasn’t so noticeable, at first, but as he aged he still behaved like an eighteen year old. As his wife grew older, and her outlook matured, his stood still. He began to find it difficult being married to someone so much older than him. He felt eighteen, he expected his wife to be the same age as him, and, more to the point, look eighteen. This woman was more like his mum. Likewise, McOther’s grandmother began to find the maturity levels of an eighteen year old husband a serious challenge when it came to the responsibilities of being a father and raising children.

I remember one of McOther’s uncles telling me that his father still expected to be as fit as an eighteen year old aged sixty. He would come out cycling with said uncle and his friends and couldn’t comprehend why he wasn’t able to attain the same fitness, stamina and speed levels at the young lads around him. It wasn’t an affectation, he literally, didn’t know or even comprehend that he was older. Unfortunately this caused a bit of tension at home, which is why, eventually, he and McOther’s grandmother divorced and she married again. The children all kept the original family name, including the two sons she had with her second husband. This just goes to show how, on top of the death rate, the mental scars the survivors carried may often have been as significant, if not more so, than any physical injuries they endured.

Thus it was that, a few weekends ago, we went off to France and went to the Somme.  Over the weekend, we looked at Beaumont Hamil which is where McGrandfather’s regiment went over the top and where he was injured, the site of the Red Baron’s death and we visited the Australian Memoral. We also visited one of the best air museums I have ever been to which I’ll have to leave for another post.

Site of Baron Von Richthofen’s death.

The weather was lovely on the first day so first we visited the area where the Red Baron died. There’s not much there. Just a plaque by the side of the road, a bit like Agincourt.

Apparently, shot and mortally wounded as he was, Baron Von Richthofen managed to crashland his plane, clipping a chimney with the wheels as he flew over and landing roughly in a field. This photo shows the chimney on the left hand side. Allied soldiers rushed to the plane and he whispered the word, ‘Kaput,’ slumped over the controls and died.

McMini, who has devoured every piece of literature he can find about the Red Baron, explained that Baron Von Richthofen was one of the true knights of the air, in the tradition of chilvalry, because he was always at pains to stress that his pilots should try to break the opponent’s plane rather than kill the person flying it. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it sounds plausible. He was buried with full military honours by the allies, anyway and it’s the reason McMini admires him so much.

Afterwards, we stopped in a couple of cemeteries and walked through the graves reading the inscriptions. The thing that always strikes me about these places is the atmosphere of calm and peace. It feels as if these people are, well … if not at rest then, at least, reconciled to their deaths. There is an almost healing intensity to that calm which I can’t really explain but it is special. Some of the families of the fallen had inscriptions put on the headstones. There was a limit to this. Sixty characters, including the spaces. A world of love and grief to express. A life to sum up. Sixty characters to do it in. That’s pared to the bone, raw, sometimes powerful and often moving.

Every war-mongering idiot in charge of a nation should be made to read these before taking office and then one or two every day. Sixty characters may be all they had but, done with feeling, sixty characters is all it takes, trust me.

Perhaps it’s because I’m peri-menopausal, perhaps it’s because, as a mother, I know how much effort and energy it takes to make a life and raise one child, let alone more. Whatever it is, I only need to read a few of these and I’m distinctly moist about the eyes. Linger too long and I’m in danger of bursting into tears and blubbing like a four-star nut-bar. There’s one grave at Beaumont Hamil with an inscription from a wife to her husband which reads something like, ‘Husband, best friend, I loved you in life and I love you still’. I think the guy was about 40 when he was killed. Thinking about it, perhaps I’m not menopausal, because I found that 10 years ago and I cried then. I didn’t find it this time, so I couldn’t check the exact inscription but as we walked about the other cemeteries, I found more. And as it’s the 100 year anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War tomorrow, I thought I’d share some of the inscriptions with you.

One of the first things that strikes you, coming to these places, is that people have come from the four corners of the earth to honour their fallen just as those family members travelled thousands of miles to fight, before. Not just in the main memorial areas but in any cemetery you cared to stop at along the road, there were knitted poppies, and even, in one instance, a little knitted flower and Australian flag on one unknown Australian soldier’s grave, which was almost more poignant than if the occupant’s name had been known.

Some inscriptions were religious, ‘he was a good catholic’ one French Canadian grave reads.  Another Australian grave, ‘Christ will clasp the broken chain closed when we meet again.’ Others while grieving, are kind of upbeat, ‘A noble son, a brother kind, a beautiful memory left behind.’ Or on the date of a sargant in the medical corps, who died so tragically late in the conflict; on 1st November, 1918, aged 28, ‘With Christ, which is far better.’ And the strength and raw power of feeling behind the beauty of this one; ‘Still living, still loving, still ours.’

Then there are the stiff upper-lip ones, ‘As a soldier and a man, one of Australia’s best.’ Laid at the grave are two crocheted poppies and a little Australian flag. On the grave of a 20 year old sapper, ‘In memory of our dearly loved son and brother.’ Or on another, ‘Far away but not forgotten, Mother’. Or the one that still makes me cry, ‘In loving memory of my darling son, sleep on in peace dear’. Jeepers. ‘Not dead in hearts left behind.’ Or on the grave of a member of the Gordon Highlanders, ‘One of the best, Drumoak’. And another, a member of the Black Watch, which was McGrandfather’s regiment, ‘Time makes his memory still more dear,’ or on a member of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire regiment, ‘Sleep on, dear son, and take rest.’ On another sapper, a British one this time, the achingly poignant, ‘Only good night beloved, not farewell.’

Then there is the out-and-out anguished, ‘Oh how I miss him, no tongue can tell, the happy face I loved so well,’ or there is, ‘His war is over, his sun is set, but we who loved him can’t forget.’ Or ‘Sleep on dear son in a far off grave. A grave we never see.’ I wonder if they were going to say ‘we’ll never see’ but were left, two characters short. The message comes over well enough without.

Lastly there is the occasional political one, ‘Who lives if Britain dies, who dies if Britain lives.’

Even now, 100 years on, it is incredibly poignant to visit the cemeteries and read the graves. There is a world of grief and love in sixty characters.

Drawing by an Australian solider

 

 

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How a battery charger saved my bacon …

…And the danger of over confidence when coupled with good intentions.

This week, I was going to talk a little more about happiness being a state of mind, but I only have a few minutes to do this in so it’s more of a dump it and leg it!

It’s been a busy week with a bank holiday at the beginning, a weekend away and a trip to my Uncle’s funeral today. It began with a bit of a dodgy start. Up at 5.30 expecting to leave by 6.00 but cocked it up and was late, finally leaping into the car at 6.15, I was not a happy bunny when pressed the starter and it turned over once and died. Tried again and it went ‘click’. I pulled the lever to open the boot and the cable snapped – for the second time in a year, I’ll have to book it in to be fixed. Luckily, it wasn’t all bad. Before snapping, the cable had actually unlatched the boot lid so I was able to get it open easily enough and access the battery to put it on charge. I was already fifteen minutes late departing, fifteen minutes too late to be able to take McOther’s car – it doesn’t go fast enough when there is quarter of an hour to recoup. As you can imagine, there followed a very tense ten minutes while I waited for the booster to charge the battery enough for the car to start. Yes. There was swearing.

On the upside, it did work, the car started and I was there just after nine because I missed the worst of the traffic on the dicky bits, i.e. the entire M25 which was uncharacteristically clear. Sure it was an hour early but that wasn’t a problem; there were cousins to chat to by ten past! I am so glad I got there. It was a lovely service, planned by my Uncle, himself, and it spoke eloquently of what I gather was a very peaceful and ‘good’ death. The priest was a lovely chap and spoke well about him, too. I did cry, and the bit that got me was the point where we said prayers for the sick and the list comprised Mum and Dad, while the prayers for the dead, apart from my uncle, were for my aunt, his wife. It was very moving, and a positive and uplifting, if sad, experience. It was wonderful to see my other uncle and aunt, and my cousins and my brother and all my cousin’s children who have grown into splendid young people, one with a microdot in tow. Well worth braving the roads.

However, there’s not much to say after that, at least, not in thirty minutes, so instead I’m going to share a story from Setting Tripwires for Granny and Other Tall Family Tales.

Learning to throw and missing …

This is a story about the disastrous consequences of having a sport obsessed older brother and the dangers of learning to throw, over arm. When my brother and I were little and lived in the school we used to run with the other housemasters’ kids. The amazing thing about it was that we probably had the kind of upbringing our parents, or grandparents, had rather than our contemporaries. We walked around the school, which was the size of a small village, and the adults kept an eye on us. If Mum wanted us home for tea she’d just ring round the other housemasters, starting with the most likely, to see if we were playing with their kinds and then the housemaster’s wife would come and tell us it was time for tea. This was standard procedure for all of them so we got to play alone much more than we might have done.

During this time, most of the kids I hung out with were my brother’s age so they were boys. As a result, their first priority was to teach me the most important things in life, how to kick a ball properly and how to not throw like a girl.

Actually, I used to be able to throw reasonably well but I’ve never managed to get a chuffing ball to go that far overarm, maybe it’s the bingo wings interfering with it or something, there seems to be a bit too much flexion in my arms and not enough … um … hurl. Yeh, whatever it is, they failed. My nine year old can throw as far as me. Anyway, on with the story.

My brother decided, when I was four, that he must teach me to throw over arm. After weeks of intensive coaching, I did finally crack it and could do a very passable overarm throw for a four year old girl. The day came when one of the lads had his birthday party. There we were, a massive group of kids running riot on the lawn and I was anxious to show my throwing prowess. Anxious but nervous. Some of the boys were throwing a lump of wood about, the foot rest from one of those turned wood chairs (check name). The point came when it landed at my feet.

‘Hey, I can do this!’ I thought and I picked it up. Flung my arm back over my head to get a really good overarm lob on it and … oh dear … let go. The wood flew up into the air, hit a window, which broke and landed back at my feet in a shower of glass.

The others stared at me in silence.

I had no idea if they were horrified at my pathetic attempts at throwing properly, or just thought the way the glass had showered down on me was really cool. All I could think of was how surprised I was that the throwing had gone so badly.
Never mind, I’d remembered how it felt to throw, muscle memory and all that, I would be able to throw over arm.
The window belonged to the house next door and the housemaster of said house came striding across the lawn looking a bit stern.

You did what???

‘Oi! You’ve just broken a window.’
‘I’m very sorry, I said.’
He looked up at the window and down at me and the piece of wood.
‘What on earth were you doing?’ he asked.
With complete confidence in my newly acquired throwing prowess I replied,
‘I was just trying to do this!’

I picked up the piece of chair and threw it, over arm, towards the assembled crowd.
Except I didn’t.
I did exactly the same thing again. And guess what?
Yep, you’d better believe it.
I broke another window.

Which just goes to show that even when you are absolutely sure of yourself, and have the most well-meaning intentions, it’s sometimes best to be cautious, engage your head as well as your heart and think before you act, otherwise, it can all backfire horribly.

In light of the storm rocking the independent publishing world this week, it seems that’s still an important lesson.

 

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A bit of a sad one …

Last Friday night I got a Facebook message from one of my cousins, out of the blue, telling me one of my uncles was very ill, by Sunday morning he was dead. He was in his 80s and had lived a long and fruitful life. I believe he was refusing treatment and I think I was supposed to have received an email about it the week before but due to the joyous vaguaries of the internet it never arrived. Due to the joyous vaguaries of my mother’s memory loss, I never heard from her either – she would be the usual source. She thinks she wasn’t told but she has dementia too. I suspect she simply forgot.

My uncle was a lovely chap, the oldest on my Dad’s side, and a great character. He used to phone me up every couple of months for a little chat which would last exactly eight minutes. I was always touched by this, after all, he didn’t have to and as our most distant (geographically) uncle, we didn’t see him as much as our other uncles so I didn’t know him as well. He was also kind enough gave me a stunning print of Ely Cathedral – because we used to live in Ely – which now hangs, resplendent, in our hall.

He and my aunt and cousins lived near Colchester for 33 years. Ironically, just up the road from where I live now. He was vicar of a parish just outside Colchester. Needless to say, we lived in Sussex at that point. We used to go and spend a night in the Marks Tey Motel on our way to holiday on the North Norfolk coast and pop in to see him. We would spend a day running wild with our cousins and the dog, Seager, and then go on to holiday. Later, after my aunt died, he moved to near Glastonbury, eventually living with one of my cousins. A few years ago he moved again, to Guildford, which was great because it was much nearer to Mum and Dad so they were able to see him far more often. One of my other cousins, who lived near him, would bring him over for tea and a chat with Dad several times a year.

The highlight was always a trip over during Wimbledon. They would have lunch together smoked salmon sandwiches, salad, crisps and strawberries and cream which they would eat off their laps, while sitting in front of the telly while watching the tennis.

Usually, after lunch, Mum and my cousin would take a wander round the garden while Dad and his brother had a good old chat. Last year, I managed to get to the Wimbledon get together, too, so it was great to see him. The home had managed to put his hearing aids through the wash in his trouser pockets so the poor man was ‘without ears’ but we had a very pleasant lunch, nonetheless. I did what is known in my family as ‘Mum’s Joyce Voice’ after the way she used to speak to a deaf friend. It’s a bit embarrassing and you can feel a bit condescending doing it to start with because it’s basically loud and clear (but keeping the treble up).

However, it seemed to work and apart from the fact that my Dad behaved abominably, mainly because he is too far gone to understand that you need to speak a little louder and more clearly to deaf folks and then got annoyed with my uncle asking him to repeat himself. Even so, it all went off pretty well. Luckily this is Dad’s older brother, so maybe he had enough memories of little brothers behaving badly to remain unfazed and unperturbed by a modern day repeat! He was sweet with Dad, anyway.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Mum and I were discussing arranging another visit and talking about how much we were looking forward to it and also, naturally, our faint hopes that Dad would behave himself this time. Wimbledon will not be the same this year, indeed, I doubt there will ever be another Wimbledon without me thinking fondly of my uncle. I think his funeral is going to be sometime during the week after next so I will go to represent my parents. There’ll be no-one to look after McMini not enough notice for McOther who is too busy so I’ll have to take him out of school and bring him with me but it should be OK. If it looks like it’ll be a long service, we’ll bring Beanos.

I don’t normally post pictures of my family but here is one of my uncle – on the right of the picture in the smart light brown suit, having a laugh with Dad (bottom left) in better days and Mum (fuzzy head in the RH corner) at Mum and Dad’s sapphire? 40 anyway, wedding anniversary party. The one below that is my uncle on his 82nd birthday, I think, back in 2011 anyway. Lovely shot sent by my cousin Matthew just afterwards.

 

 

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Sleigh that again?

It’s been all go this week. Snow has fallen (snow on snow) and it’s been fucking freezing (pardon my French) all week. We’ve had about 8 inches of snow, going by the pile on top of the wheelie bins, but the first four inches melted a bit before the second four arrived so it was only ankle deep here in town. Still looked cool though (see photos). What I like about snow is the way it lets you see the world anew; the same old same old, yet so different. I don’t know about you, but a quick dose of snow always helps me to appreciate my surroundings more. For us, here, there was just enough to be pretty and fun and not so much that things began to get a bit dicey.

That said, I believe there are folks out towards Norwich who have seen some impressively big drifts and now have a good grasp of how the average raspberry feels atop a pavlova. While others have no power. Definitely less fun for them.

On Friday, after school, I took McMini tobogganing. Our sledge is a plastic one, but slightly different to the usual in that it has a raised back and a lowered front. Apart from the fact makes the thing look more like a boat it also makes steering harder and you can’t use it lying down, face first. That didn’t stop fourteen stones of British lard from careening down the hill though – I lay back, skeleton style – but McMini was rather more cautious. I understood his reticence, my first memory of tobogganing is of me, my brother and my dad, all sitting on our toboggan and feeling very frightened.

Judging by the size of our toboggan, I must have been very small, in fact I’m amazed that the three of us fitted on. My misgivings soon disappeared when I discovered I could lie on it and proceed face first. Our toboggan was some ancient thing that had belonged to my mother as a child so it had steering, which helped.

On the down side though manoeuvrable, it was extremely fast – although that was also an up, in many respects. I remember visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins in Kew over New Year – a visit that was famously cut short after I ate an icicle off the bottom of a car and was violently sick about fourteen times but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah yes, tobogganing with my cousins. We took our toboggan to a hill in Richmond Park. It was icy, very steep and rammed with other folks on toboggans, mostly plastic ones or the Blue Peter home build (like the one my cousins had). All were going very slowly.

Our toboggan was not only the one Mum and my uncle had used as kids, it was the one which, in turn, my grandmother had used when she was a child. Antique and battered it may have been but this thing went like shit off a shovel – it still does. It looked rubbish, it also still does, and as you arrived on any packed slope you could almost feel the other kids watching you go past thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ and snickering contemptuously at your toboggan POS.

Then you’d take a run down the hill and the impression you got was that they were still thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ but with a different inflection entirely.

On this occasion, it was like trying to drive a Grand Prix car at full speed through a shopping centre without hitting anyone. You know the first car chase in the Blues Brothers, when they’re trashing the mall … that’s our toboggan with all the other kids pootling about around it. My cousins’ Blue Peter model seemed faster than everyone else’s as well, so it was kind of a rinse and repeat on theirs only with no steering! Unnerved by a couple of rounds of toboggan frogger we decided to move to another part of the hill which wasn’t being used.

Despite being a bit mad and fast, things were much easier with our toboggan on home ground. I grew up in two places at once, the staff side of the house in the school where Dad was a housemaster and our own actual home, which we lived in during the school holidays. Both places were half way up a down … well … the housemaster’s one was more three quarters of the way up but you get the picture. The point is, you could walk out of either house and pretty much onto a big hill. Five minutes and you’d be away. On the few occasions it snowed in the holidays, we’d spend hours up on the hill. There were thrills, spills and luckily, no injuries.

This is a ‘Down’. As you can see from the photo, the downs could be more appropriately named, ‘ups’.

The other great thing about living on a down was that you are not going to get that many people up there, and if you do, there’ll be plenty of room. The downside is that they look smooth but in reality there are a lot of sheep tracks up there so try the wrong slope and it’s like tobogganing down steps. Also there are fields up there, and the thing about a field is it usually has a fence. Hedges were getting pretty rarified in those days so said fence was usually three strings of barbed wire and some shuggly posts.

My father embraced the joy of tobogganing with even more enthusiasm than his children so we usually went as a family, or depending on school holidays etc it would be me and Dad or Dad and my brother and Mum back at home getting some peace and quiet. One occasion, I remember we had already moved out of the school for the holidays into our actual ‘home’ but needless to say, my school term hadn’t ended. Dad and my brother went for a tobogganing session while Mum collected me from my last day at school. We returned to find the two of them at home, which was not expected. There was a perfect field, just as you come into our village; a nice gentle slope, someone was even skiing on it one year, but it did have hedge at the bottom, in the middle of which was the ubiquitous knackered downland barbed wire fence, and beyond which was a trunk road. This wasn’t troubling the four or five other sledgers who were out the day Dad and my brother went but our mad toboggan was faster than all comers, as usual, so it went further. After a few runs it was clear that my dad and brother could only ride safely from half way up the hill, unless they wanted a close encounter with the hedge.

The field was L shaped and the road turned away taking the hedge away and leaving a lovely big square of unsullied virgin snow. My brother and dad wishing to experience full tobogganing joy trundled along the hill until they were above this. Now they could go from the very top and would have a huge amount of run off ground where the toboggan could come to a safe halt. Unfortunately, they moved along at the top of the hill so they didn’t hoist in that, where the road and the hedge turned the corner, the crappy barbed wire fence from the middle carried on, across what they thought was a wide snowy gap.

Dad went first and as he careened off down the hill, three things occurred to my brother:

  1. He noticed the barbed wire fence for the first time.
  2. He realised that Dad was short sighted and still hadn’t seen the fence.
  3. He realised that, not only had his loving father not noticed the fence but that he was unlikely to do so until he caught it in the neck while riding a toboggan at speed.

My brother set off running in hot pursuit shouting, ‘Dad! Fence.’ My father was sitting on the toboggan and steering with his feet. It had picked up some serious speed and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it stopping before it hit the fence. Luckily some other folks further down heard my brother and also ran towards Dad, relaying the message, with a bit more volume. Dad heard them and saw the fence, at a distance of about ten feet. There was no time to think, no time to steer and for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to bail out. Instead he lay calmly back, flattening himself against the toboggan – and probably the ground behind it – as if he was doing the Luge for real.

According to my brother, Dad passed under the fence at high speed. He took a slight scratch on the nose and it whipped off his red woolly bobble hat but otherwise, he and the toboggan came out the other side unharmed. My brother said it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen because Dad had been so calm, but also one of the scariest because he felt he was about to witness his father’s untimely death. That said, I suspect Dad may not have felt as calm as he looked, since he suggested that they’d probably done enough tobogganing for one day and that they head home for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a plaster.

I guess the moral of this story is that few things are as they seem, ever.

On a side note, it turns out that the toboggan, itself, is not as it seems either. Indeed, it is a collector’s item. Which just goes to show that, coming from good Yorkshire stock who are too tight to throw anything away has its benefits (even if it was via five or six generations exiled down south to soften them up).

The toboggan is in Sussex and I’m in Suffolk so I can’t send you a picture. I can, however, show you what it looks like.

Thanks to Sledhill.com for this. Check out John’s Sledhill P1 in the menu for details of ours; it’s either a FFNo2 or an FF2B.

Like the snow on Bury, trying to find a picture of our toboggan has made me see it afresh. I knew it was old but it had never really occurred to me to think how old. Over 100 years. And it’s from the USA. I can imagine Grandpop (my great grandfather) going to Harrods or somewhere – possibly Hamleys – to get it for his son and daughter one Christmas.

That’s a hell of a thing.

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