Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Memories of Granddad

Before I was born, Granddad was a postman amongst many other things. One freezing winter, he chanced the iced-over canal as a short cut to Brewood. The ice cracked and bike and man and post slipped quickly into the icy water. He had to dry the letters out one by one by the fire. Then, during the war, he helped his father Frank, with their secret canning operation. Rations were never enough; the black market rural economy thrived. And one day, he met Olive, the slightly well-to-do woman from a Cheshire family. The Suttons thought that she might be marrying down, but he convinced all in the end. He would spend all his days in her watchful company.


The photo of him in drag at a carnival in 1972. The day sits at the dimmest recesses of my memory. The photo brings his playfulness alive. He had big boobs.


Granddad and I shared a ritual during my adolescence. On long summer days we would go to either the perch pit down Broadholes Lane (pronounced bradoles or Mrs Johnson’s carp pit and fish. I taught him how to fish at the age of 13 – how to hook a maggot (stab the hook in between the ‘eyes’), tie a hook to the nylon (the various knot options), how many lead weights to add to the line so the float sat upright in the water, how to cast, and how to respond to the different bobbings of a float. We sat for hours together in companionable silence, every now and again, reeling in a fish and setting it down silver-slippery into the keepnet. The maggots riggled in their tub between us, sandwiches in a Tupperware box close by. Both of us are still there now, by the green water, under the shade of a bough. Afterwards, if we’d been fishing for carp, we’d go to Mrs Johnson’s, where the peacocks wailed and strutted. We’d drink tea from porcelain cups and fruitcake in her shady living room. Granddad would tell stories in his country brogue – tales of their age mates and what was happening in their world. I would sit and listen. Every now and again, Mrs Johnson would fetch more tea.


His hair was like Heseltines, his eyebrows like Breshnev, his face like Kirk Douglas. Granddad was a bit of a looker.


All the time in my childhood, there was the continuous refrain of granddad whistling “What a strength we have in Jesus” as he cycled around the village, wearing a beret in summer or a thicker almost-Russian looking hat in winter. Sherry, the Alsatian they bought after being burgled, biting at his tires and barking with glee. He only ever seemed to whistle the first two lines of the tune.

One year, Granddad, Vic and I spent the day watching the Severn bore – the once yearly tidal wave that rolls up Britain’s longest river. The wave was like a hump-backed animal creating a blade of water while gliding just beneath the surface. We onlookers let out a collective gasp when the wave approached with an implacable whoosh. Surfers rode the wave for endless miles. We’d watch it pass, then race upstream to another destination, and wait again. The three of us, in the presence of a miracle of nature.


Granddad exploding at a woman at the gates to Church Farm while I stood by. “You think I’m a country bumpkin” he shouted. The woman soon sharded into tears. He bequeathed his foul temper to son, to son.


Granddad saying, ‘well flop me’ with a sweet and gentle smile on his face, while listening to some extraordinary story. He used when recounting something wonderful in nature, like the day he saw birds in formation changing altitude with the most fantastic choreography.


The day we bought the house at Marston at the auction. Granddad bid by slowing raising his stick. We all stood by as he got it for us for eight thousand pounds.


All those weekends watching ITV impersonator Mike Yarwood and comedians Eric Sykes and Benny Hill (while mom and dad ran the folk club), sipping sugary hot chocolate. Sister Vic had to sleep at the bottom of my proper hot water bottled bed on a camp bed. The injustice yielded onto her via the younger brother stained the days. Granddad had his first tipple (sherry) only when I was born, after taking ‘the pledge’ aged 14.


Mending bikes at the back of the house (Seedley Cottage). He taught me how to fix brakes, and look after my bike. He made me a catapault once from a Y-shaped branch down the lane. I smashed a window in the shop opposite once using it. I never owned up.


He’d lift the 56lbs weight that Sherry was tethered to with his little finger, while telling me about the incredible strength of Frank. Frank could raise two 56lbs weights above his head repeatedly, with his little fingers. Frank used to go to the greyhound races 5 days a week, travelling by pony and trap to Wolverhampton (10 miles distant). He was the strongest man in the village. He gambled away a whole street of houses in one game. We came from yeoman stock, my mother always said. Yeoman stock with a gambling streak, more like.

Granddad used to dig graves for ten pounds a time. When I was younger, he’d dig four in a weekend. Later on, when the strength slowly started to fail him, he’d just go to funerals. I came home from school once, to see him rushing in for a quick cup of tea between death ceremonies.


Buying Vic and I our first proper car, a cherry red Citroen Dyane for a thousand pounds. I named her Jolene. The car tilted as we went round bends and had a funny gear stick near the steering wheel, a lever with a handle you pulled in and out to change gear. That car was summer freedom – picnics, wine and dope with friends in the depths of the country with the fabric roof rolled off. One day, Granddad decided to drive to Penkridge with it as a change from driving his own car. The trouble was, no one had taught him how to use the gear stick. He drove 5 miles in fourth gear. The engine sounded a bit like his singing in church: low but struggling valiantly on.


Granddad, later on, going to watch the Watling Street traffic with Olive at the Bradford Arms. Flask in front and Sherry panting in the back. Marvelling at the endless flow of humanity and machine.


Hugging him for the first time in my life at Stafford railway station, returning from Belgium, after Nan’s death in 1991. Shaving him when he was weak and dying. The last goodbye, as he lay there in his bed at Church Farm.


My Talking Beginnings 10:42 am  

Gosh, your grandad sounds awesome!

Anonymous,  12:28 pm  

I have my own memory of your grandad. I lived in Wheaton Aston and on one of my many adventures away from the village (my Raleigh Winner racing bike took me to Church Eaton and beyond...) I watched with curiosity a man who I'm now fairly sure would be your grandad digging a grave in Lapley churchyard. He was an older man at that time, unaware he was being observed. It was the most sustained effort and hard graft I'd ever seen or have seen since. still regularly recall this!!

Jeremy 12:33 pm  

gosh that's odd! He always dug the graves in Lapley, often working alone with a spade (it was much more common for two men to do the job).

I'd love to know who you are and a bit more about your memories (this piece is part of a book I'm writing on memory). Email me if you like: [email protected]

Anonymous,  1:19 pm  

It just goes to show how precious family is and how we miss family members terribly when they....irrespective of our relationship with them.

May your granddad's soul rest in peace, amen.

Anonymous,  5:46 pm  

Seems the apple does fall far from the tree!

A grave-digging, religious man with a gambling streak. My kinda guy. So tell me, what happened to you, J? ;-)

Jeremy 5:50 pm  

Hey Fred - don't confuse my granddad (who never ever gambled) with my great-granddad (who lived and breathed it)..

Anonymous,  7:47 am  

a beautiful set of memories. i'll look forward to the book!

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