Old man (or woman) gets settled, comfy, in his/her chair with its high seat, the better to get easily out of; sighs reminiscently. Gazes into the middle distance, milky eyes slightly unfocused, lost in a warm fog of nostalgia. Audience of younger people waits expectantly.
‘Yes, when I was a child, before the War, I remember . . .’
That’s been the way our elders and betters recounted the stories of their lives since time immemorial; the oral tradition. And it was a noble tradition. Authenticity bestowed by no-frills, sometimes hard experience. But unless spoken into a microphone, the words were fleeting, impermanent.
Way back in the misty past of forty-two years ago, in 1971, when his hair was still black and his voice still an octave or two above the gravelly, in Famous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen sang, a little morosely (but then he did morose very well), ‘I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.’ Yes, quite so Mr Cohen. I trust you meant some kind of written record. That’s the beauty of capturing words, memories, and freezing them in some sort of media: they can be revisited time and time again, forever.
And the highest form of record is still, arguably, for all our modern digital technology, autobiography. Of course, diary writing or autobiography used to be the prerogative of the highly educated, the literary, or those with little else to do. Think eighteenth-century elderly ladies and gentlemen, whiling away the long hours of idleness before high tea and concomitant polite entertaining.
Nowadays life stories are a nice extra earner for all manner of celebrities, ranging from the articulate who can fashion their own sentences to over-regarded footballers whose reminiscences are ghost written for them. But how much nicer would it be if ordinary folk wrote down their lives too? Or at any rate had someone write them down for them, as an honest social history. Most of us have something interesting to record. You don’t necessarily have to be someone off the telly or the movies or a sports hero to be chronicled for posterity.
So, in this spirit, two years ago I wrote my own life story, just for fun and as a better alternative to retirement daytime TV. It was my first attempt at a full-length book. It’s been languishing on my hard drive ever since, because I couldn’t summon the courage to try publishing. (After all, who would be interested in reading about a complete unknown?)
My second masterpiece is semi-autobiographical too, insofar as the male protagonist is based more than a little on Yours Truly, and is an old-house nut. But the autobiography, Wishing for the Better, is the unvarnished warts-and-all truth about an ordinary bloke a bit inclined to dream, who never became any sort of ‘celebrity’ but had an interesting and varied life and achieved a sort of fulfilment all the same. I’m offering it here, for free, in manageable chunks. If you find it interesting, I’ll post more. I’ll kinda do a Dickens, but minus his skill!
I’m in the sitting room of my cottage, sitting on my sofa with Ellie dog, my beautiful springer spaniel lying companionably beside me. Computer on my lap, I’m embarking on the telling of my life story.
A couple of years ago I began researching my family history. It was fascinating looking at the census records and seeing my parents named as small children, Mum nine months and Dad four years old, in distant 1911. I traced my maternal line right back to the first time the census recorded actual names of people in 1841. In the parish records for that year I discovered my great-grandfather, William, marrying at the tender age of eighteen his sweetheart Mary Ann Collin. In 1861 they produced my granddad Herbert, their fourteenth child. I found Herbert married in 1901 to Granny Edith, with four children. Ten years later they have eleven, with my mum, Gertrude Phyllis, the last.
It was more difficult to trace my dad’s line back. Perhaps there was some dark shameful secret. Whatever the reason, the trail goes frustratingly cold. But even with my mum’s line, although all the (many) names are there, the facts are only the barest of white-bleached bones. There are absolutely no interesting morsels of information on them at all. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t talk more with my mum about her past before she died. Now she’s gone, unchronicled, and with her my family history too.
The main purpose of this book was simply as an enjoyable retirement project, but regardless of any literary merit it might have – which probably isn’t a lot – at least it’s a social record for my descendants. If any of them are interested in how a silly old ancestor lived, here it is. They won’t have the frustration of not knowing and never being able to find out. It’s a record, if they want it, of how one person partly responsible for their existence experienced life in the second half of the twentieth century (now rapidly fading into the mists of the past) and the first part of the twenty-first. Of how he reacted to life events and what he thought about things at the time. A voice from the past.
My personal values-system, such as it is, runs alongside my (some might say obsessive) passion for houses. For old ones anyway. Perhaps, like many of the things that influence our growth as human beings, this goes way back to childhood. Growing up in a village, it seemed perfectly obvious, a given, that a ‘normal’ sort of house was a cottage and a ‘normal’ environment was a country one. As I grew I began to reject this. But although the second half of my childhood, teenage years and early adulthood were spent in towns, I suppose the first rural experience took root in my psyche and has never left.
This story of how I finally got here does, I’m afraid, centre a lot on old houses. Please bear with me. I know that enthusiasts, especially of the anorak variety, can be insufferably tedious, so if I bore you silly, sorry! There is – honestly – a lot of other stuff not house-related, like idealism, relationships, spaniels and loss in the tapestry of my life. But in 1976 a major event happened that altered things completely, so much so that my life’s course has been dictated by house projects, of varying success, ever since.
My brother Derek and I are as different in some ways as chalk and cheese. Although he did better out of the bad old selective grammar/secondary modern education system than me, Derek is not a thrusting, ambitious chap who has forged a lucrative career. He has spent most of his working life with his last employer, and stayed in the same part of the east Midlands where we were born. He seems quite contented with his relatively uneventful life. Good for him. Sometimes – like when, Laurel and Hardy-fashion, I’ve found myself in Another Fine Mess due to impetuousness, idealism, impatience or just plain over-reaching stupidity – I’ve quite envied him. But not very often. By contrast, my life has been much more event-packed, for good or ill – always trying this, pursuing that, never satisfied with the status quo. Always the dreamer. Always wishing for the better. Always chasing another rainbow. John Lennon could have written Imagine just for me. Perhaps the very fact that I failed to make it to grammar school gave me the incentive to strive for something more fulfilling than the dull life that might have been.
My life has been punctuated by a series of B(C?)Ms. That’s Bold (Crazy?) Moves. The parenthetical ‘Crazy?’ indicates the usual opinion of my advisors and peers at the time. Life certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing. What I’ve got now hasn’t been provided on a silver inherited platter, or by going to the right school. My fortune/misfortune graph has sometimes been very spiky. There have been times of deep trouble and sometimes crushing sadness. And I certainly haven’t made a financial fortune, but that’s fine. In the important things, I feel myself wealthy. I have enough. An enduring loving partner would have been good, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
But (except when I’ve hurt others) there’s not a great deal I would have changed. To balance the negatives there have been times of elation, like anyone who strives for a goal and succeeds feels, and – usually at the end of a project – a feeling of achievement, of psychological reward. I could not have imagined my life without creating things, without making things. I’m no intellectual; I’m a doer, a creator rather than a talker.
So here it is: my life story for what it’s worth. I can’t claim any profound insights. I don’t think I’ve ended up particularly wise. Hopefully though, all my adventures, all my ups and downs, haven’t turned me into a reactionary disillusioned cynic, a miserable grumbly old git. I’m still the dreamer.
Still a silly idealistic old fool, I suppose (although I don’t apologise for that; as Popeye would say: I yam what I yam). But enough of my eccentricity. Here’s my saga. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m in my pram. It’s sometime in 1943, after my birth on the 12th of August. The Second World War is raging, spreading horror and destruction throughout Europe, although Empingham, a village of limestone tea-cosy thatched cottages in Rutland is perhaps not suffering as greatly as London and other industrial cities.
I’m far too young to know any of this of course, but I’m currently suffering a few vague worries of my own. My pram is not in the reassuring custody of my mum, but running out of control down the sloping village street, followed by a little five year-old tyke, my brother Gerald. It’s not recorded whether he let go accidentally or deliberately, but either way, to my tiny little mind things don’t quite seem to be as they should. A primitive and basic emotion wells up: fear.
That’s all I recall of my first half-memory. I was never told whether Gerald regained control of the pram himself, or whether my mum was actually present and caught me, giving Gerald a stern ticking off for his pains. Nothing untoward happened; clearly I lived to tell the tale, but perhaps that early introduction to the unpleasant sensation of fear should have made me timid for life. Certainly I’m not physically brave, but that experience did nothing to dampen my tendency to roam seeking greener grass, to cavort with risk, or as some would put it, be just plain reckless.
The next early memories are less fraught. At age three, two come together: one of being allowed into my parents’ bedroom to see my baby brother Derek. I don’t know whether this is immediately after his birth, but my mum is in bed, cradling a miniscule, novel, new little being. It’s rather a Freudian moment, because Mum is partially bare-breasted, feeding the baby. I feel a little envious; slightly resentful at being supplanted by this not-altogether-welcome new arrival.
The other memory is decidedly odd: an official-looking lady has knocked on the cottage door and she’s also holding, apparently, the same tiny white woolly bundle. This, I’m told, is the midwife and she’s brought my new baby brother. But how can that be? Even I have the vague idea that babies come from mummies; appearing quite spontaneously in bedrooms. I must either have got the wrong end of the stick or have been lied to by devious adults. It’s not so much a case of natal delivery as delivery to the door, like a pizza. But it’s certainly a variant on the stork myth.
Memories now come more freely. I’m in my dad’s arms in a big strange echoing place quite unlike our cottage. This I later learn is a hospital, where I have been taken suffering from an asthma attack. The illness would plague me throughout my childhood. Another hospital memory is of having my tonsils out, of being in a hard, starched-sheeted bed by a window. This may be a case of over-fertile imagination, but there seems to be a hillside outside with cars on a road that snakes around the base of it. Which is odd, because if the hospital is in our nearest town of Stamford, there are certainly no hills outside the hospital there.
Nostalgia is notorious for rose tinting, but in many ways my childhood is like Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. Like Laurie, I remember my first day at primary school, where I was taken and delivered into the care of a lady who presided from a tall wooden Victorian desk, the better from which to keep a stern eye on proceedings. Like Laurie, I childishly misunderstood things. In his case, he was told to sit in a certain place ‘for the present’. He went home disgruntled that afternoon and told his big sisters that he’d sat there all day and ‘never got no present.’ Mine was getting a word wrong too. In the infants class Friday afternoons were given over to general play activity. This was called ‘optional’, in that we could choose from a selection of toys or games, and for years I thought in my childish innocence that ‘optional’ meant just that: playtime.
Empingham School was a typical small village establishment with just three classrooms. Lady teachers ran the infants and juniors, and the headmaster (called simply The Master) was in charge of the top class. Just two memories come back of the intermediate years. One, like some of my earliest memories, was a little bizarre. It was just before Christmas of 1951 or 1952. The window of the junior classroom faced across the street to St Peter’s Church. One day, as we pored over our books, a child glanced out of the window and suddenly exclaimed, ‘Look! There’s Father Christmas on the church steeple!’ En masse, the children leapt from their desks and crowded around the window with cries of wonder and awe. But not me. I was at the back of the class, a small unassertive child and slow to respond, and by the time I arrived at the rear of the excited gaggle the view was completely blocked by the taller jostling, elbowing kids. I saw absolutely nothing. I never did learn what was there – I don’t suppose it was anything very much – but I do remember feeling very cheated. I think it was around this time that I began to empathise with the underdog!
The other event during that period that stands out was a gift to still ration-bound Britain from the Canadian Air Force, which was based in the locality. One day, The Master told us to bring in suitable containers because there was going to be a gift of (of all things) drinking chocolate. Drinking chocolate? What was that? We’d never heard the like. Anyway, the following day we all duly presented ourselves clutching a variety of receptacles (some kids, as I recall, optimistically had very large ones) and received a helping of this exotic fare from a posse of impressively uniformed airmen. The idea, of course, was to take this bounty home to our parents. But of course it had to be tested en route. To our naïve palettes it was just unbelievable. Such wonder! Such sweetness! Such decadence! Grubby fingers were licked and thrust into jars and tins time and again. Mouths disappeared beneath a sticky brown crust. I think very little of it survived the journey home.
After two years in the intermediate class it was time to join The Master in the ‘seniors’. It suddenly became a stricter, more serious regime with a male authority figure. And he certainly was strict, if not cruel, by modern standards. Corporal punishment, even for such young children, was the norm. Here’s one more school anecdote. One morning a rumour flew around the school that there was ‘the smallest horse in the world’ in a nearby field. Determined not to miss out this time, I gobbled down my lunch and rushed with the other boys to see this wonder during the rest of the midday break. It turned out to be nothing of the sort, simply a Shetland pony. But we were still very impressed, and there were many gasps of ‘cor!’ and we stayed too long admiring it. When we arrived back at school, to our horror we found the playground empty. Classes had resumed. Terrified, we crept inside. The Master was completely unimpressed by our reason for being late and we each had several stinging strokes of the cane across our little hands for our trouble. Imagine that happening nowadays: a teacher would be sued for assault.
I was not the brightest pupil, but I did enjoy art, partly because it was the one subject where I outshone the rest of the class (which wasn’t saying a lot: the standard was not high). It happened on Friday afternoons, like Optional before, and I really looked forward to it. We were told to bring in Interesting Objects Found in Nature to paint. Presumably because resources were still scarce at the time, The Master had a precious cache of tubes of water colour hidden in his desk. We had to stand in line to receive tiny blobs of this for our masterpieces, which for most of the kids consisted of vague smudgy watery brown/grey/khaki renditions of dead leaves, bits of dried twig, stones or other utterly uninteresting objects collected thirty seconds before coming into class. I tried to be a little more creative and looked for objects that actually were interesting, beautiful or unusual, and tried to paint them as carefully as I could. I had a slight advantage over the other kids in that, apart of a bit of an aptitude, I also had more practice.
Asthma kept me bedridden for quite a large portion of my childhood, and I wiled away the long hours painting and drawing. I withdrew into a secret world of the imagination peopled by comic strip heroes and fantasy figures that I became quite adept at copying (come to think of it, I might have become a good forger). I also spent hours just thinking about things, which probably made me bit of an introverted little twit and a rather insufferable prig. The asthma was certainly not nice, and this was before the advent of nebulizer inhalers. The only treatments available then were a thick white medicine that tasted vile or large yellow unswallowable pills. I hated both, but things could have been far worse. Whatever the cause of it, whether an allergy (possibly caused by feathers or house dust) or stress caused the family by trouble with brother Gerald, who had epilepsy and behavioural problems, or both, I outgrew it at puberty and have been fine in that respect ever since.
But when not debilitated by the asthma or traumatised by Gerald’s behaviour, or bullied at school for being Gerald’s brother, rural life was good. It was not altogether the idyll of Cider With Rosie perhaps, but it came close. We had so much more freedom than urban kids. The world – or at least the countryside around the village – was our playground. We roamed the fields at will, never thinking for a moment about trespass, and the farmers didn’t seem to mind. The thought of attack by murderers or paedophiles simply never arose, not that we had the faintest idea what a paedophile was. Our parents never worried for our safety. We were innocents.
Until I went to secondary school I hardly ever left the village. In later childhood, apart from school there were just two main trips to the outside world. First in the year came the annual Sunday School outing, to the seaside at Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast. As far as my family was concerned it was the only holiday we had. It was awaited with growing excitement for months. When the great day came, kids, mums (I don’t remember any dads getting involved) and Vicar, still dog-collared, presumably there to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand, piled into a coach for the trip to the coast. It wasn’t a huge distance but it seemed interminable and we were looking out for the first faint band of blue-grey across the horizon long before we were within sight. When the first positive sighting was made the cry went up, ‘There’s the sea!’ and our little heart rates collectively cranked up several gears.
The day was spent pottering on the sand, paddling in the bracing North Sea or wandering the promenade. We never actually bathed because it was usually too cold, we didn’t possess swimwear and we couldn’t swim anyway. Very little money was spent, presumably because our parents just didn’t have it after paying for the trip. All too soon it was time for the return. On the coach we made the pleasure of the day last to the very end with a singsong: a raucous medley of such classics as ‘Ten Green Bottles’ and ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’. Oh, such simple delights!
The other annual outing, although we only had it in later childhood, was a trip to Stamford for the heady pleasures of the visiting funfair. There were the usual attractions: dodgem cars (which I found hilarious), roundabouts (a bit tame), the waltzer (a bit too scary), the big wheel (ditto), side stalls with trashy gifts easily won, sickly pink candy floss that got all over your face, disappointing toffee apples (when you licked your way down to the apple itself) and wonderfully exotic coconuts, borne excitedly home for Dad to solemnly crack open. The flesh was sheer ambrosia, the milk nectar.
Then there was the Christmas party, also Sunday school organised, an affair of rather bland food (but our mums did their best) and not overly exciting games, sometimes rounded off with an amateur film show given by one of the dads (well, this was serious, head-of the-family stuff), who took an age fiddling about threading the spools as we kids fidgeted. I seem to remember these efforts not being something fun, like cartoons, but serious, vicar-approved and ‘improving’.
And that was about the extent of our high-grade entertainment in those early days. Television had yet to arrive in our house, although my friend Johnny Lee’s parents had one. They were in service at the Big House and were thus half a notch higher up the social scale, so could run to one. In 1953 we, and most of the village, were invited to watch the grey grainy pictures of the Coronation. We were bored, but the mums thought it wonderful.
So there was just the radio, with Dick Barton Special Agent, Journey Into Space, The Goon Show, Educating Archie and of course the exuberant Billy Cotton Band Show. When Billy himself entertained us with such quintessentially English numbers as
Sunday arternoon arter dinner/that’s the time that I love best . .
you knew there couldn’t be a lot wrong with the world. (Author’s note: the above will only have meaning if you are a British person old enough to remember Billy Cotton).
But then, around 1954, TV did arrive in our house, in the shape of a 14-inch Pye ‘Continental’ (Dad always considered himself a bit of a sophisticate). It was quite an elegant affair, like an early Bang & Olufsson, discreetly styled with a curiously forward-tilting blue-black screen, and took an age to warm up. You had to plan your viewing about an hour in advance. There wasn’t unlimited access to this wonder. For a start, programmes didn’t begin until the evening. Secondly, bedtimes were dictated by Derek’s age (about eight) rather than mine, which I thought a bit unfair, and we were sent frustratingly up Wooden Hill to bed halfway through the evening.
Saturday was the high point of the week. First there was doling out of pocket money after lunch (presumably only then as we’d already eaten proper food). It wasn’t a great deal – our parents couldn’t afford to spoil us – and was immediately taken across the road to the village shop to be blued on sweets. No thought of making it last, let alone saving any of it. Then came a flat period in the late afternoon when silence had to be absolute as the football results were read out on the wireless and Dad ticked his coupon. I don’t remember him ever winning anything.
But then things picked up in the evening. After our weekly communal bath (yes! – there was a premium on hot water) in the non-plumbed tub in the back scullery, Derek and I joined the parents in front of the Box as they munched their saved-up treat of Cadburys Dairy Milk, which we eyed enviously. Our own sweets had of course long gone. In those days Saturday night meant Variety, with an incredibly young Bob Monkhouse, comedians like Ted Ray and Arthur (hello playmates) Askey and The Television Toppers (a high-kicking dancing troupe), not to mention the goddess-like songstress Yana, who was like a slinky British version of Marilyn Monroe, although we were far too young to appreciate the fact.
So this was our first real taste of 20th-century technology. But for my parents there would still be a wait of some years before other things so taken for granted now, like a telephone, a washing machine, a car, a bathroom even, entered their lives. Meanwhile, as far as we kids were concerned, village life may have been horizon-limiting and a bit constraining, but we couldn’t imagine anything else. We felt no lack.