A hundred years ago Europe leaped into the abyss of a dreadful catastrophic war precipitated by the assassination of an archduke in an eastern European country. A war that would devour ten million lives and wreck millions more. And solve nothing in the longer term. It would take another even bloodier war twenty years later to achieve peace between Europe’s major powers.
But not in all of Europe. By the 1990s, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the flames of war were raging again in the turbulent Balkans. Sarajevo was again on everyone’s lips, this time as it found itself under merciless siege. It took considerable bloodshed, heinous war crimes and yet more suffering before the warring former Yugoslavian states of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia could be persuaded to live in some sort of peace.
And now, a hundred years later, we have it all again, in another country of Eastern Europe, Ukraine. Again, the trouble boils down to nationalism; to identity. A Russia-leaning, corrupt government is violently toppled by an insurgent population most of which wants to align itself with Europe and NATO. But Russia, piqued, then invades (let’s not mince words), albeit bloodlessly, the Crimea peninsula, the setting of an earlier blood bath between Britain and Russia, on the pretext of defending the Russian-speaking and Russia-identifying-with populace; of ‘normalising’ the situation in Ukraine.
Once more, yet again, sabres are rattled. Tension rises. America warns Russia of ‘consequences,’ as Britain warned the German Kaiser in 1914. Now, with wearisome predictability, we have the West-backed, elected-by-violent-coup, interim government of Ukraine uncompromisingly refusing to allow Crimea to secede and Russia, having seized it, equally determined to keep it. We have dangerous macho obstinacy on both sides.
But why on earth can’t Ukraine be left to settle its own affairs, and not become a Cold War-style proxy for belligerence between one super power and its Western allies and another former one? All right; so Crimea did belong to Russia before 1954, when Khrushchev so magnanimously ‘gifted’ it to Ukraine, for his own cynical reasons (although it had been annexed by Russia centuries earlier), regardless of the views of the Russian majority living there. And okay; so now those Russians feel that they want to be part of Russia again. That’s up to them. But of course the other minorities who’ve also always lived there don’t feel that way, and their views should be respected too. The problem won’t be solved by strong arm tactics from Russia, encouraging Crimea to hold an artificial referendum giving the result that she wants.
And now Crimea has had its bogus referendum with its foregone conclusion. The pro-Russian populace has predictably voted in favour of rejoining Russia but pro-Western Ukrainians have largely boycotted it, it seems, giving a distorted ‘result’ of 97% in favour of transfer to Russia. And now there will simply be ongoing tension, with many people dissatisfied in Ukraine and East-West international relations returning to the bad old days of the Cold War
But where was the United Nations in all of this? As usual, hand-wringing and toothless. Why could the UN not have proposed a compromise: a genuine referendum in which all parties would have been willing to participate, wherein Crimea would have been partitioned in direct geographical proportion to the votes for and against joining Russia? A border could be drawn across the peninsula, above which Ukrainians could continue to live in a physical part of Ukraine; and below which Russians could also continue to live but now as part of Russia. Possibly the eastern part of Ukraine should become Russian too, to reflect the wishes of its population.
That sensible compromise wouldn’t happen of course because international power politics are at play. Russia wanted and has now got (back) Crimea; the West wants Ukraine to remain intact and become part of NATO, not to mention all the market opportunities it offers. And there’s the matter of national prestige, so help us.
Of course partition is rarely perfect. Witness Ireland, whose northern, Loyalist counties went through years of terrorist horror, although now, thankfully, there is largely peace. Sadly, there were (and still are a few) uncompromising nationalist extremists who wanted/still want totality one way or the other. But in some seemingly intractable situations where you have an unhappy and sometimes oppressed minority, is there a better, or less bad, alternative to redrawing national boundaries, really?
Perhaps if the world were run more often by women, who are less inclined to hurl insults and reach for the nearest AK47 to settle disputes, international diplomacy might be more successful. May I show you a short passage from my book Forebears? In it the pivotal character June, a radically-thinking diarist, comments on the siege of Sarajevo in that other Eastern-European tragedy of conflicting nationalisms. She rails angrily:
They’ve done it again, it seems. Those big brave men strutting around toting their vile firearms (probably to compensate for small penises), which from the safety of the surrounding hills they train upon the helpless, terrified people, picking them off like flies. Excuse my crudity, but it makes me so furious. They aren’t simply callous brutes; they’re cowards too. They can’t even engage in honest (insofar as warfare ever is ‘honest,’ or ‘clean,’ or ‘clinical’ or any of those other ridiculous euphemisms so beloved of generals) with other soldiers. No; they have to rain down their terror on civilians: old men, women, little children, like the V2 rockets in the last war. There’s nothing gallant about being a sniper.
We watched those appalling pictures tonight of that shelling atrocity in Sarajevo; that market again – what do they call it now. Oh yes, the curiously English-sounding Markdale. That sounds like some rural idyll in Yorkshire, not a place of death. And this is the second time it’s been targeted, apparently. The first was in February last year, when sixty-eight were killed and more than a hundred and forty-four injured. How can soldiers – or the politicians and their commanders – ever, EVER think that any cause justifies such cruelty? Sometimes I really despair of the human race.
And it’s happening in Sarajevo. Sarajevo of all places: that noble city of culture and tolerance and ethnic diversity, and yet catalyst for that unspeakable crime, the mass murder of World War One. It’s as if it never really got over that; the responsibility for having sparked that conflagration was just too much to bear.
Of course we’ve had it here too; this stupid male belligerence. Look at the terrorists in Northern Ireland thinking, by their twisted logic, that because Catholics have been oppressed in the past they’re justified in planting bombs that slaughter the innocent to achieve their ends. Again, they’re cowards; they won’t take on the British army face-to-face in what they consider a war. Not that I’d like to see that happening, of course. The Republic of Ireland should say to these people; we don’t want people like you to join us anyway. Just bugger off.
Not that I respect the extremist wing of the Loyalists either, with their stupid, swaggering (marching can so easily look like that) Orange Day parades, with their bowler hats and banners and sashes and flags, deliberately going through Catholic areas so as to provocatively emphasise their God-given supremacy, as they see it. What do they want to be loyal to in celebrating a battle that happened hundreds of years ago, anyway? Some nostalgic vision of Britain when it was ‘Great’ and had an empire that subjugated and exploited half the globe?
Right: that’s got that off my chest.
On a happier note, here’s another extract from Wishing For The Better.
Wishing For The Better/9
I’m at my desk, at Cyril’s, sitting opposite Cieri, who replaced me when I left. He has a strange sounding name because, rather ironically, he’s Welsh, from Pwllheli on the Leyn Peninsula, that beautiful part of Britain that first sparked my love of Wales. His name is unusual even in Welsh, as he was named after a local mountain. He did the opposite of what I’ve just tried to do, and came to England to build his career. He’s quite a character: the other John loves him and bestows the same fierce expressions of affection as he does on me. Cieri is unimpressed though and tells him to bugger off. He tells me he’s quite relieved to see me back. He didn’t settle easily into the job I’d vacated, as he’s less of a designer but more of a finished artist. For one who looks more like a rugby player than an artist, he’s certainly a good one: he can work with very great delicacy and quality of finish. Cyril didn’t dispense with his services on my return, and now I’m back as resident designer Cieri is doing what he’s best at.
It’s quite a culture shock being thrust back into the old life, minus a few significant features of that existence, after the staggering and eye-opening experiences I’ve just been through. I had rather hoped for a few days’ respite to re-acclimatise, but Cyril wanted me back straight away. I suppose I should feel flattered that I’ve been missed so much. But all the same, it does feel like being thrown in at the deep end.
John was kind enough to fetch me back, with my few moveable chattels like clothes and my stereo system. All the other stuff, the furniture and so on that we divided between us, was still at the farm until I could claim it. Sally thought I was doing the right thing in coming back. She gave John and me lunch: doorstop-style cheese sandwiches innocent of any accompaniment like tomato, onion or pickle, and scantily fruited cake. I didn’t tell John how she’d prepared it. It was nice of her though. I spent the first night back with John at Kingsnordley. It was very strange, seeing the place I’d created and then recklessly thrown away in someone else’s ownership, containing someone else’s furniture, reflecting someone else’s taste. Staying there as a guest. It was rather depressing. Sadly, however, John (who also thought it a wonderful place) was to be deprived of the joy of living there too. He was there on borrowed time, because he and Pat were splitting up. They were going to have to sell it and go their separate ways.
Another kindness would now be paid me. Rod and his wife Maggie offered to put me up until I got some accommodation sorted out. It was certainly nice to have so many good friends. I stayed with them for a few days and looked around for lodgings. The ones I found were just about as different from the previous two as you could image, a case of Ridiculous to Sublime. It was a house-share with a young man who was as dull as the others had been eccentric. He was an insurance loss adjuster (about the same level of liveliness as an accountant or an Inland Revenue clerk) who was sharing his house to help pay the mortgage.
His house was in Stourbridge, a short walk from work. I had full use of the lounge, kitchen and bathroom although – apart from a rather strained first Sunday lunch of great awkwardness – we cooked and ate separately. It was dull and utterly conventional, but I had to admit that it was nice to be civilised again. But the problem was the boredom. Used to always having something to do and not wanting to spend my time watching TV with my companion, I read voraciously. The weekends were the worst. I remember spending one interminably long weekend sitting for hours in the nearby park reading, just waiting for the hours to pass and an event to happen, like going ‘home’ to cook a meal; or walking the streets in the evening, passing houses where families lived in comfort, happiness and love. I really envied them. I felt totally cast adrift, my life reduced to pointlessness.
This wouldn’t do, I told myself. There was no point in wallowing in self-pity. I would have to get my own place as soon as possible, for so many reasons. It would have to be something really cheap, but ideally something with potential. In other words, a house to do up. I looked around the Stourbridge estate agents. There was one possible candidate, in Wollaston, a suburb of Stourbridge to the west on the edge of open countryside (it had originally been a separate village) which was well situated, as it was within walking distance of work. It was a small Regency-style double-fronted house placed on a corner. The side-wall sported a fairly ornate bay window, almost certainly a later addition. Strictly speaking it was a detached house, although it had become linked to the neighbouring house with a garage. It looked remarkably original, with small-paned sash windows and possibly the original panelled front door with a multi-paned light above.
What really added to the feeling of originality inside was the fact that the house had no electricity. Image that, in 1977 in an industrial conurbation! There were authentic gas brackets for lighting, a black-lead range in the kitchen and an old copper for boiling water together with a mangle, dolly tub, dolly peg (which I’ve still got) and flat-irons in a third scullery room at the back. Unfortunately the original fireplace in the sitting room had been replaced at some point in the past with a 1950s cream-tiled one. What a pity. Upstairs were three bedrooms but no bathroom (but I was getting used to this). There was a flush toilet outside, and I discovered a galvanised bath for use, cosily, in front of the fire.
In terms of condition, the house was very poor. The house had been lived in by an old man, who had obviously done nothing to maintain it in recent years. (Mind you, he had an excuse to some extent: he had only one hand. I found one of his artificial appendages when I was clearing out). It needed a new roof, re-plastering, a new sitting room floor, wiring, a bathroom and a kitchen. That was all! Anyone else, ‘modernising’ it, would also have ripped out the windows and door, although they only needed minor repair and repainting, and probably replaced them with plastic. I was glad that the old chap hadn’t improved the house. It was a wonderful renovation opportunity. The asking price was £5,500 and it would then require more cash for building work, although, as with Kingsnordley, an improvement grant could offset some of that.
But although I could service a mortgage now, there was still the problem of finding a deposit and paying my part of the builder costs. I had arrived back in Stourbridge pretty well broke, and I would need to find getting on for £1,000. It doesn’t sound much today, but it was a fair sum then and I simply didn’t have it. The only way to amass it quickly was to volunteer for a lot of overtime. In the old life I’d always been very reluctant to work extra hours, having far more interesting things to do at home, as were most of my workmates. Because of this, Cyril offered very generous overtime rates. If you were interested in earning a significant amount of extra money, you could. So I gritted my teeth and went in to work, alone, for the entire weekend all through that autumn of 1977. Cyril’s business was on the up and up, and there was plenty of work available.
It wasn’t a lot of fun, thinking of all the normal people outside enjoying their weekends of leisure, but I was earning almost double my normal salary and the money was quickly piling up. At first, Cyril was delighted that I seemed to have come back from Wales reformed from my silly idealism and with normal aspirations now in place: those of making as much money as possible. After six weeks or so though, he was beginning to change his mind. I was inflating his wage bill considerably and beginning to cause him cash flow problems. Eventually he asked me to stop doing it, and by that time I was ready to do so anyway. I’d got enough deposit money to exchange contracts on the purchase and more salted away ready for the builder. So with great relief I stopped.
Completion of the purchase came and at last the house was mine. I had lined up builders, a gang of three young men skilled in the various trades, who would be available to start in the New Year. I could devote my energies outside normal working hours to the Project. Great! In those early days of my renovating career I still had to rely quite heavily on professional help, but there were lots of small jobs I could tackle myself before the builders started. I bought a second hand single bed and installed it in the rear bedroom (soon to become the bathroom) so that I could spend Friday and Saturday nights there in order to make the most of the shortening days in the unlightable house. By this time it was November and the nights were getting cold. Having spent the evening in the comfort of the lodgings having my main meal, I would make a packed breakfast and lunch for the following day, walk to Bridgnorth Road at bedtime and go straight to bed. It was both chilly and primitive: I’d bought a sleeping bag and would sleep fully clothed in the dark, dismal bedroom, telling myself that it would all get better; really, it would. It felt like sleeping in some sordid squat, but then my previous sleeping conditions had been pretty dire too. I empathised with the homeless.
But I was getting things done. Things were on the up. Christmas came and was spent in Stamford (it was better than the previous one had been) and as 1978 came in the builders came too. Soon the house began to look promising: the rear bedroom became a plumbed bathroom with a gas-fired water heater. A sink unit, with full H and C, appeared in the kitchen. The downstairs rooms were re-plastered and the wooden sitting room floor replaced. I had pulled out the nasty 1950s fireplace to leave an open alcove for a wood stove. Kitchen units and chipboard surfaces were installed in the kitchen, for me to finish, as surfaces were in those days, with stuck-on sheet Formica. I retained the corner brick housing for the copper, surfacing it with Formica too, and took out a second, smaller range fireplace to create a display alcove.
Apart from re-roofing at a later stage, that was the end of the paid-for building work. The final job in this first, making-the-house-habitable stage was electrical connection and wiring. In later projects I would tackle this myself, but for Bridgnorth Road I used a proper electrician. It was a big day when the inspector came from the council and pronounced the work satisfactory so that the grant could be given, the builder paid and, most importantly, I could take up residence. I hired a van and went down to the farm to collect my share of our divided furniture. It didn’t amount to a great deal: a 1920s period oak dining table and chairs, an old Windsor chair donated to us by Arthur Crumpton of Kingsnordley fame, the oak double bed with a nice Art Nouveau motif carved in the foot section (which I suppose I was conceived in) handed down by my parents after they changed to solo sleeping, and various small chattels. I had no form of comfy seating – Steph had kept our armchairs – so I bought a traditionally styled two-seater sofa. Later I would make things myself, or buy them, or acquire other things from my parents after they died.
So now I was reasonably well set up in material terms, by my standards anyway: I wasn’t interested in furniture either modern or luxurious. I bought an old Citroen and regained mobility. Now that I had a place to call my own, and wheels, I could have the children to stay. We worked out an arrangement whereby they came for weekends once a month. I collected them from Steph at the midway point, Llandrindod Wells, on Saturday mornings and delivered them back on Sunday evenings. It was nice: it felt like a semblance of normalcy, an approximation of the old life. Fortunately, they were still fairly young – twelve and eleven – and fairly adaptable (with parents like us they’d learned to be from an early age). So at first they slept together, head to tail like siblings in a Victorian family of fifteen, in a second double bed that had been left in the house. Having given up a bedroom for a bathroom, there was nowhere else to put the single bed. It was all I could give them, and they didn’t seem to mind.
I tried to make a point of giving them an outing on these visits; tried to positively give them some attention, to make up a little bit for the lack of it when I was married and complacent. In the summers I started taking them on holiday. One year we went to Scotland, my first visit and another wonderful discovery. We stayed near Loch Tay. It was quite difficult thinking of things that would interest both Simon, who only wanted to do mountain climbing, and the girls. One day we set out to climb at least part of Ben Lawers. When we arrived the girls said they’d rather stay in the car. Simon and I set off on our short climb, but didn’t get very far. The wind was blowing an absolute gale. It was so strong that Simon was being constantly blown over, and I could barely stand. It wasn’t dangerous where we were, on a gentle slope, but could well become so, so there was no option but to return to the car and the smirking girls.
At the end of that week, our last day, it was Halloween, and the owner of our holiday cottage hospitably invited us to a party at the village hall. In an attempt to dress the kids for the part, we went into Dundee and bought paper, string and black marker pens, and spent the Friday afternoon making skull masks. This was something the girls could be involved in too. I made a (for me) typical faux pas at the party. Before it started I’d called on our host to settle up. He gave me a receipt, and said he hoped we’d come again. Then he involved me in a little theatricality. He was to be MC at the party. As I was a stranger to the community, he asked me to pose as a messenger bearing important news, and gave me a piece of paper to give back to him in a little play-act. It brought back uncomfortable memories of my stalled career in panto all those years ago. We arrived at the hall. The idea was for me to burst in as he was giving his welcoming words to the assembled revellers and hand him the paper. He began his speech and at the back of the room I psyched myself up for my performance. I would rather have just quietly left, but forced myself to stride dramatically forward exclaiming, as he pretended surprise at the interruption, ‘Excuse me: I have important news!’ The throng drew back to give me passage – it was just like a Hollywood epic – and stared at me, as I thrust the paper at him.
He took it from me, looked down at it, and his face momentarily fell. He continued his address, pausing now and then as if straining to remember something. Then the festivities began. The kids joined the other children, who were all dressed in complete scary costumes of course, as they paraded in front of judges in the competition for best witch or monster. Then there was music supplied by a proper Highland band with accordionist, piper and other authentic musicians, all of them resplendent in the kilt of their particular clan. And there were riotous games for the children, some of them involving grownups. My three looked at me expectantly and I no option but to join in. Finally the fun came to an end, rounded off with me being dragged reluctantly around the dance floor by a friendly local lady for the last waltz, as I apologised constantly for my lack of dancing prowess and desperately tried not to step on her toes.
Back at the cottage, the kids were well pleased with their night out, excitedly saying they wanted to come again. It made me feel ridiculously happy, as if I’d made up to some extent for my previous neglect. My self-esteem arose a few notches. Then something made me feel in my back pocket for the rent receipt. I pulled it out and found myself gazing, stricken, at the script for the landlord’s speech. I’d handed him the receipt instead. Poor man, no wonder he was struggling to try and remember his lines. Throughout the evening, with impeccable politeness, he hadn’t mentioned my stupid error once. When we took our leave the following morning I was mortified, but he laughed it off good-naturedly. ‘Och, don’t worry about it’, he said, ‘I’d got it pretty well memorised anyway’. Which didn’t make me feel any less guilty.
I messed up again the following year, although without embarr-assment, when we went to Ireland. The plan was that I’d pick the children up from the farm on the Friday night and we’d catch the overnight ferry from Pembroke Dock to Cork. I’d booked sleeping berths. You wouldn’t think it’d be possible to get that wrong, would you. But I did. After boarding the ship and leaving the car safely corralled on the vehicle deck, we went in search of our cabin. Only to find someone else in it. We got into a rather heated argument as to who was the rightful occupant. Eventually the other person showed me her reservation, proving that the cabin was hers for that crossing, which of course became a Saturday one after midnight. Then the penny dropped: I’d booked for the Friday (as in ‘Friday night’) but as far as the company was concerned it was effectively a Saturday journey. As used to be famously said on ‘Allo, Allo?’ with a theatrical smiting of an extravagantly hatted Italian head: ‘Watta mistaka to maka!’. I suppose no one else would make such a mistake. Only me.
Anyway, the cabin clearly belonged to the other person. There was nothing for it but to improvise as best we could. After a while I spotted a notice, presumably aimed at idiots who booked cabins wrongly, saying that refunds could be got from the purser’s office. But when I found it the shutters were down: clearly you had to be quick off the mark to get recompense. Being quick off the mark isn’t one of my strong points. So I’d lost my berth fee. We settled down for a night of uncomfortable sleep, choosing between seats in the lounges or bench seats at tables in the dining room. We weren’t alone: other more savvy travellers were doing the same thing, probably for reasons of cost. I doubted whether they’d shelled out money for cabins they couldn’t use. As usual, the kids were models of tolerance of their brainless father.
At least we were up early for the arrival in Cork, a beautiful approach to a destination that seemed more Italianate than western European. Then there was a long, rather bleary-eyed drive to Connemara. We arrived, located the holiday home, ate and went straight to bed. The visit passed without further stupidity on my part. We walked, drove around the gorgeous Dingle Peninsula and did the usual touristy things like visiting Blarney Castle to intrepidly kiss the famous stone (you needed great faith in the two men who held you suspended out into space high up a tower, on your back, to bestow it). Apart from the initial blip, it was another good holiday in a beautiful country among lovely people.
A third year, my mum came too and we went to the Lake District. It wasn’t the most successful holiday, as by now Simon was into his teens and wanting to do serious mountaineering, whereas the three females didn’t, or in my poor old mum’s case, couldn’t. With her lack of mobility, even moderate walking was difficult for her. The clash of expectations was becoming unmanageable. When, the year after that, the girls opted out, I was rather relieved. Simon and I went to Ireland again and fully indulged ourselves in mountaineering. There was nearly a disaster on the return trip though. That year we crossed from Holyhead on Anglesey to Dublin and drove right across Ireland to the west coast. I took note of the journey time so as to allow sufficient time for the return, but by the time we’d cleaned the cottage and settled up we were cutting it rather fine. I drove back across Ireland at breakneck speed on roads not really conducive to high-speed travel. We couldn’t miss the ferry because we had to rendezvous with Steph at Betws-y-Coed for her to collect Simon. In those pre-mobile phone days there was no way to make contact if there was a problem, so we just had to get there.
On our previous visit I’d been amused by the way that signposts, then mainly of the fingerpost variety, were often packed with a plethora of ‘fingers’ signing not just towns and villages but all manner of other places of interest like holy shrines, tourist attractions or even blatantly commercial enterprises such as stud farms, out-of-the-way dog grooming parlours and the like. At a point somewhere in the centre of the country we approached a roundabout where three roads met, with five possible exits. On the island in the middle stood one of these complex signs: a totem pole of cluttered helpfulness. Driving into the roundabout at speed, it was impossible to take in the barrage of information. With not a minute to spare, the very last thing I needed was to shoot off on the wrong road. I stayed on and went round the roundabout again, as we both strained to pick out the directions we wanted. But we still weren’t making any sense of it. I was beginning to think that we’d made a horrible mistake somewhere miles back and weren’t on the Dublin road at all. Suppressing panic, I slowed right down and did a third circuit. It was becoming like a manoeuvre straight out of the Keystone Cops.
Finally we saw what we craved: the legend ‘Dublin’ hiding coyly amongst the confusion of signs. Carefully I took the indicated exit and we sped on. At last we approached Dublin, but time had run out. We were past the departure time and we still had to reach the port of Dun Laoghaire. At least the route was well signed now, with the word ‘Port’ appearing helpfully at regular intervals, but my heart was in my shoes. At long last, a good hour past departure time, we drove into the port . . . and the ship was still there, waiting to leave. As we entered the marshalling area a sign was up apologising for the ferry’s running late. ‘That’s quite all right’, I breathed, relieved, ‘quite all right’.
We finally arrived at Betws-y-Coed an hour and a half later than planned. I was having nightmares that Steph would have given up and left, but she was there. Anxious, she’d phoned the farm in case I’d called there because of a problem; but as I hadn’t she’d had no choice but to wait. At least it wasn’t my fault that the ferry was late. But if it had been running on time and I’d missed it . . . It didn’t bear thinking about.
‘You’re going up in the world!’
Startled and nearly falling off, I looked down from the top of my ladder. I was re-pointing the brickwork on the front of the house, a slow, tedious and rather chilly job. A plump middle aged lady wearing a woolly hat (what my friend Tony from teenage years would have amusingly called a ‘ratting hat’) was standing on the pavement looking up at me, smiling in a friendly way.
‘I’m Ruth from up the road. Do you fancy a cuppa?’
‘Oh, yes please’, I said without a moment’s hesitation, ‘love one’.
‘Right oh’, she beamed. ‘Follow me: it’s number 177’.
I did so. She lived three doors up from me in a terraced house, one of a substantial Edwardian row. As soon as I saw inside her house I knew I’d like her. She wasn’t remotely house proud (but, I soon learned, an avid gardener) and had no airs and graces. She was the complete antithesis of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (‘if you let the sun in, make sure it wipes it’s feet!’). Her breakfast room, which did duty as a day living room was a riot of clutter: there wasn’t an inch of exposed wood on her sideboard and she had to clear a space in front of me as she sat me down at the table before busying herself making a pot of tea. Like others from my past – such as Miss de la Questa and the lithe ex-dancer Sally – she was a character.
But more importantly, both Ruth and her husband Alan, an Ordnance Survey surveyor who did exquisite wood turning as a hobby, were supremely kind and hospitable people and became very good neighbours. There was no keeping-themselves-to-themselves with them. They were throwbacks to an earlier age of community spirit and a door-always-open policy. I first got to know them when I was feeling rather cast adrift, and it was a great comfort, if I needed a little company, to be able to wander up the street and knock on their door, knowing there would never be a quizzical what-do-you-want? expression on his or her face, but an instant, cheery: ‘Come in John’. That sort of genuine friendship meant a lot then and still does now. I’ve met other similarly friendly neighbours since, and kept in touch with all of them. My Christmas card list consists largely of neighbours met along the way whom I’m proud to call continuing friends.
Now that the house was basically habitable, I could indulge myself doing lots of improving things. It was a huge relief, after the lack of autonomy at the farm, to be in a position to completely please myself. I suppose I became selfish; but that’s a tendency, I’ve found, in living alone.
The first consideration was the fireplace in the sitting room. Although the house had had hardly any modernisation, it had acquired, unfortunately, a tiled 1950s fireplace. The original focal point of the room had been lost. The mid-twentieth century replacement would have to go – in fact it had already gone: removed unceremoniously at the builder stage. I made a wooden surround, with mantelshelf, in a Victorian style, resisting the temptation to make it over-ornate. The fireplace opening was left so, and I installed a wood stove, a more efficient alternative to a fireplace. It was, I felt, the best solution in the circumstances.
Then came the biggest job. Like many town houses of its time, there was a cellar beneath the sitting room. It was horribly damp and cold, and would drain a lot of heat out of the room above. So I decided to make it dry and insulated. It would add another habitable room to the house; although some space would be sacrificed in the sitting room for a new staircase replacing the original damp brick one, which led down with little headroom underneath the main staircase, from the dining room. It was quite challenging devising a wooden framework that could be fixed without puncturing the plastic sheet membrane that kept the dampness in the original brick walls at bay. Insulation was placed between the timbers and bevel-edged plasterboard nailed on top. The edges were filled and rubbed smooth, and when painted looked fairly convincingly like a plastered surface. I did it that way because I’d yet to attempt full-scale plastering (and when I did, my first efforts were awful). The floor, also insulated, was constructed on the same principle.
Now there was the staircase to construct. This was also new territory – I’d never built one and was well aware that it would have to be made carefully to be quite safe. And it wasn’t a simple flight (well, that would be too easy!) It ran along the side of the room by the bay window, and for space reasons the top two steps had to be ‘winders’, that is, triangular in shape so as to turn a right angle to meet the sitting room floor. So there had to be a fairly complex construction of steps attached to a newel post running between the two floors. I bought a book on building technology that included a section on staircase carpentry and read it avidly.
Fired with enthusiasm, I built the staircase and was quite pleased with myself. (Several years later I sold the house. The buyer was an enormous man who must have weighed twenty stones or more. At one point, showing him around, both he and I stood on the staircase. I said another atheism-abandoning prayer and it held up, as solid as a rock. I was even more pleased after that.) It worked quite well, linking the sitting room with another habitable room – which I styled a ‘music room’ when I sold – below. The only downside was that the width of the upper room was reduced quite a bit. With the balustraded open staircase descending from the room, it was rather like living on a large landing. The space wasn’t great, but as I didn’t have much furniture, it was no problem.
Still in altering mood, I looked at the bedroom arrangement. As the third, rear bedroom had become a bathroom (entered, not very satisfactorily, through a front bedroom) it was reduced to a two-bedroom house. But the bedroom on the corner had two windows, front and side. It ought to be possible to cunningly partition it into two, each with a window. The side one would be a reasonably adequate single room. By pinching some space from the central stairwell and giving it, with a raised platform (so that there was still sufficient stairs headroom) to the ‘front’ room, it would be possible to create an L-shaped bedroom big enough to take the other double bed. As it was an old-fashioned one with wooden head and foot boards, I cut the legs short on the head and it sat partly on the platform. Part of the L was devoted to built-in back-to-back wardrobes for each room. An ingenious solution, I thought, arrived at by much doodling and plan drawing. I loved doing that, and would do it many times more. I really missed my vocation: I should have been an architect.
The final major item was to greatly improve the insulation of the rest of the house. This was the ‘sustainability’ ethos propounded by Undercurrents, and radical, pioneering thinking for its time, before awareness of carbon emissions took off. I treated all outside walls (having only recently paid to have them re-plastered, but never mind) in the same way as I’d done the cellar: by fixing timber battens, with insulation between them, onto which were nailed plasterboards, with filled edges.
I had retained the nice, original small-paned windows but increased their insulation performance by making internal, insulated shutters. These were another Undercurrents idea, and consisted of thick insulation (in those days polystyrene, before better rigid materials were developed) sandwiched between outer sheets of plywood, which were painted. They were ‘parked’ behind the drawn-back curtains during the day and hidden behind them when drawn to. It meant I had the best of both worlds: the retention of original wooden windows in an old house but also greatly improved performance – during the hours of darkness (which are the coldest) anyway.
Improving the thermal performance of the house in this way really did make a difference to the amount of heat needed. It cut it considerably, so much so that I found that conventional radiator central heating wasn’t necessary. I removed the central open grate of the old range in the dining room and replaced it with another efficient stove. With heat sources in both main downstairs rooms, I found that by creating air ducts in the ceilings this heat was quite sufficient to keep the bedrooms warm as well. This approach, of combining careful and sensitive restoration with modern insulation practice became my philosophy for subsequent projects. Sometimes the two considerations can’t be satisfactorily combined – you couldn’t reasonably put solar panels on an unspoiled old house of merit (not on the front elevation anyway) for example. In many other cases the latter destroys the former, as in the case of ugly plastic double glazed windows, which look awful on old buildings and are less efficient (at least during the night) than insulating-shuttered single pane windows anyway. I hate them. I grieve for the thousands of lovely old houses throughout Britain that have suffered death by plastic. And nasty white plastic doors are even worse. I think it’s perfectly possible, with a little intelligent compromise, to have the best of both worlds.
There was just one more thing to do to the house: run a passage through the undivided bedroom to the bathroom. But comparatively speaking, this was a final detail. With things to occupy me running out, thoughts were turning to my emotional needs. In 1979 Steph and I were divorced, on grounds of two years separation. One of us had to do the instigating of it, so I did and we presented ourselves before the family judge at Dudley Crown Court. He congratulated us on the civilised manner in which we conducted ourselves and amicably sorted out our rather unusual financial affairs. So that was that: I was now a divorcee; officially alone in the world.
When the break up had first happened I’d completely panicked. I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to survive, psychologically, without the support and comfort of a partner. After twelve years of marriage I’d got very used to, and dependant on, its emotional security. But there had been so many pressing practical problems to confront initially, to do with rebuilding my life and finances, that I’d been distracted from too many negative thoughts about the poverty of my solitary situation.
Surely there was someone, somewhere, to be loved by and to love. I certainly never expected to find myself back on the marriage (or even the co-habiting) market again. Finding partners had been difficult before, and it was no easier now. Perhaps if I’d been the gregarious, self-confident type who got out and met many potential lady friends (and had the nerve to actually risk rejection and ask for first ‘dates’) it might have been all right. But I wasn’t, so what was I to do? There was no computer social networking for the chronically shy in those days. The only two possibilities that I could see were introduction agencies or Lonely Hearts advertising. I decided to try a bureau. I’d seen one advertised that aimed at a middle class clientele, and rather arrogantly feeling that it might be more likely to bring results, enrolled.
Having filled in my ‘profile’ as honestly and accurately as I could, I suppose I came across as someone with little appeal to most conventional ladies. The idea was that the agency matched people to other likely people in what (they claimed) was a highly scientific and successful – not to mention quite expensive – way. So they didn’t come up with many possibilities. The first one was unpromising. I went to see a divorced lady with two young children living with her mum, rather than have a meeting on neutral territory like a pub. It was more like a mutual interview, as we sat rather formally in her mum’s sitting room – the other family members were discreetly elsewhere – trying to think of things to say to each other, like characters in a period drama. She was even more reserved than me and left me to take all the initiative. After a while her mum brought in a tray of tea and biscuits, which only served to heighten the formality. We didn’t seem to impress each other very much, and at the end of the visit I said politely that it had been nice to meet her and left without suggesting another one.
As it always had been, that was still a difficult process. I always assumed that it was up to me, as the man, to take the lead and I still couldn’t tell, from body language or demeanour, whether the woman was interested in taking things further. But it was something I gradually learned to be bold and do, and to my surprise, ladies usually did agree to a second meeting; although things almost always fizzled out quite quickly after that. Also, because it was a national agency, many of their introductions were to people living quite a long way away. One proto-relationship (it lasted for four visits) was with a woman living in Nottingham, and another (thankfully, just one trip) was even further away, in Liverpool.
There were occasional glimmers of real hope. I met a lady living fairly locally who seemed to be quite a kindred spirit, because she was an artist. Our first meeting in a pub went well and we found we liked similar things, like classical music and Dylan Thomas. For a second outing we had dinner in Stratford upon Avon – the first time I’d ever taken a woman out to dinner and certainly the first time I’d tasted authentic Italian food. I was a revelation and I felt very sophisticated. Again it seemed to go well and we arranged a theatre visit. It would be a few days away and, emboldened, I suggested a picnic in the Clent Hills, a beauty spot near Stourbridge. She couldn’t make the following weekend, but so impatient was I to see her again as soon as possible that I suggested a weekday afternoon. Never mind that I could hardly be bunking off from work (although I’d forfeit pay), but my tail was up. She agreed, with just a tinge of reluctance I thought.
I counted the days – if not the hours – to the appointed afternoon, and left work at midday with no explanation for my coming absence. I rushed home, bathed, togged myself up and drove to the rendezvous. Eager to impress, I’d bought a bottle of wine and, the irresistible killer blow, my portable radio with which to serenade her with classical music (for goodness sake!). I was delighted to see that she’d entered into the romantic imagery and brought the food in a proper old-fashioned wicker basket. She did say though that she couldn’t be too long, with work waiting to be done. I was blissfully ignoring my work: this was far more important.
I led the way confidently into the hills; to a spot that I knew was a particularly fine vantage point. We settled down to our culture-assisted repast, like Pre-Raphaelite painters. She seemed slightly surprised when I produced the radio. But it all went swimmingly, I thought. All too soon though she announced that she’d have to go. We packed away the detritus of the picnic and set off back to our cars. After walking for a while I began to get the uncomfortable feeling that the terrain seemed unfamiliar. Features that we passed didn’t seem to be ones we’d encountered on the journey in. Finally the horrible realisation dawned: I’d got us lost! I carried on for a while, hoping that I was wrong and, round the brow of the next hill, our cars would be reassuringly waiting. But they weren’t. I stopped and, red faced, admitted that we were lost.
She looked exasperated. She thought I knew this area. (So did I, but obviously not well enough.) We’d have to go back to the picnic place and try and get our bearings from there. So we walked back, in deathly silence. I didn’t like the way she kept looking furtively at her watch. Back at the site of my recent but now evaporated bliss, I looked wildly around and tried to work out how I’d gone wrong. I could only assume that I’d set off in the opposite direction when we’d left to return to our cars. Swallowing hard, I led us the other way. To my intense relief, things like rocky outcrops and trees did now begin to look familiar. Fifteen minutes later, we rounded a bluff and there, thankfully, were our waiting cars. Back at the vehicles, there was an awkward goodbye. ‘I’ll see you for the theatre then’, she said, and drove off.
I waited impatiently for the theatre date to come around. It was at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, a performance of Cymbeline. Quite honestly, I’d never heard of it, but it really didn’t matter. Anything would have done. It was another first: I hadn’t seen live Shakespeare before and it was the cultural zenith of my life so far. It was wonderful; live theatre is so much better than drama on TV. During the interval we sipped white wine and again I felt terribly sophisticated. ‘This is really enjoyable’, I enthused, trying not to drop H’s, ‘we must do hit again sometime’. She made no reply. The performance over, we walked back to our cars (it had been a case of meet-you-there again, and I was just about to find out why). I was on cloud nine again. She got in her car. ‘What shall we do next?’ I asked eagerly. ‘I’m sorry’, she said, ‘I don’t want to take it any further. I would have said so before, but you’d already bought the theatre tickets’. And with that she started the engine and drove away, leaving me crestfallen.
Life wasn’t all about trying to find a ladyfriend though. I felt that I ought to be a bit like normal people and get out more. Learn to be a social animal for the first time in my life. Although there was the sneaking feeling that possibly, just possibly, I might find a partner in the conventional way. One day I noticed an intriguing advert in the local paper. It had been placed by the local Ecology Party (which would later rename itself the Green Party), seeking new members. This sounded interesting, as I was still keen on things environmental. Still buying Undercurrents, and also another magazine now, slightly less radical, called Vole. I liked that one for its whimsical cuddly name as much as anything. I’d seen a brilliant advert in the Observer by Friends of the Earth. It took the classic picture of the beautiful blue Earth photographed from space by the Apollo missions. Underneath it had combined two clichés, thus:
Here is the Earth. Don’t use it all at once
I thought that very clever copywriting, and tremendously moving, encapsulating the concerns emerging then about sustainability, pollution and resource depletion. I cut the advert out of the colour magazine and displayed it on my wall, where it stayed for years, as daily inspiration.
I contacted the phone number given in the advert. It turned out that the local group was tiny – hence the recruiting advert probably. It consisted of the main driving force, a college lecturer who was very intellectual and the unofficial ‘leader’; a young couple who seemed to be from right-leaning upper middle class backgrounds; an older couple, very spiritual, who sent their children to a local Rudolph Steiner school and could well have been communards; another college lecturer; a design engineer who worked at the then Longbridge factory in Birmingham; a glass worker; and a giant of a man, Max, who had learning difficulties but was also savant. He had considerable knowledge of astronomy (his father was a scientist), and on cloudless nights would often gaze at the stars and authoritatively point out heavenly bodies to us.
With imagination taking flight again, I saw myself in at the beginning of an exciting, radical new political movement. Like the commune in its early days, it was heady, idealistic stuff. The problem was, being a small local branch of a tiny (at least in Britain) party, there wasn’t actually a great deal to do, not much to be locally active about. There weren’t very many local environmental issues we could involve our selves in. In view of my printing/publicity background, I became the group’s press officer, which didn’t mean a very heavy workload. We had meetings, in a hired room of the pub just down the road from me in Wollaston, chaired by Derek the lecturer, where we talked about policy issues. It was all very pleasant and convivial, but it was probably more a matter of like-minded people sitting around agreeing with each other than working to promulgate the environmentalist message. Part of our problem, which hampered publicity, was lack of funds. We had to be entirely self-supporting; in fact most of the money we raised, mainly through jumble sales, really had to flow the other way, to Ecology Party HQ.
Being so small and funding-poor (there were no non-dom millionaire backers for Stourbridge Ecology Party, let alone the national party), we could only really play at local politics. But we took it all very seriously. When the local council elections came round we put up a candidate in the shape of Vic, the glass worker. It was very brave of him, as he was probably the member of the group with the least grasp of environmentalism. So it was that much harder for him to communicate what was a pretty obscure message at the time to an uncomprehending electorate. I remember us trailing around Stourbridge canvassing, and being met with totally blank looks when we knocked doors and proffered the leaflets that I had produced, trying to persuade people to vote for a candidate espousing something as apparently meaningless as ‘ecology’. It hardly had instant emotional appeal, like a promise to reduce taxes. Needless to say, poor old Vic got only a handful of votes.
But we still felt we were missionaries, rather like early Christians, for something profoundly important. Later that year Derek and I went to the party conference at Manchester University. At that time, Jonathan Porritt, doyen of environmentalists, was one of the leading lights, although there was no formal leader as such then. I was actually introduced to him. I was amazed at how passionate the conference was, at how heatedly policy was debated. At one point, a faction who disagreed with the main body of opinion on what seemed to me a fairly minor point staged a theatrical walkout, threatening to scupper the vote and derail the whole proceedings. It was astonishing: it was hardly as though the party was likely to win power at the next election and a vote won or lost here might affect the lives of millions. And I thought I was an idealist! But it was an interesting experience. I felt quite like a proper party activist, there with my Brothers and Sisters in Arms (cue Dire Straites), united in our holy cause.
We weren’t averse to a little well-mannered protest. One day, word spread among the group that, in spite of official denial, the following evening a train carrying nuclear waste would be passing near Stourbridge on the line to Worcester and the southwest. If anything underhand was going on, we really ought to investigate it. So, armed with cameras and notebooks, we assembled at a country station on the line and waited. There was a frisson of excitement and danger. We felt like undercover journalists. Apart from taking pictures and noting the time of its appearance, I don’t know what we thought we’d do. Perhaps shake our fists, politely, as it passed through. That would really make a difference to government policy. We waited for an hour. No sinister cargo approached. Then another hour, during which all that came by was a virtually empty two-car passenger train. We felt rather silly standing there on the platform. The people on the train probably thought we were train spotters. After another half an hour, we gave up and went to the pub.
But we did do one proper protest. We attended an anti-nuclear power demonstration in London, arranged by Friends of the Earth and other like-minded organisations. A wit in the party had devised a button badge for the occasion. It depicted a power station, using some artistic license to include a phallus-like cooling tower. This was bent over, flaccidly, and had two of those spherical structures that nuclear stations have, either side of it. Underneath ran the legend:
NUCLEAR POWER AFFECTS YOUR SEX LIFE
implying the sterilization risk with radiation. I had done some graphic work for the party, including its manifesto booklet, and was charged with doing artwork for the badges and getting them produced.
On the day of the demo we travelled to Birmingham to meet the specially chartered train, which was collecting protesters throughout the length of Britain. As we waited on New Street station clutching our placards, we became aware of a couple of men surreptitiously photographing us. Someone opined that they were Special Branch, monitoring us. Someone else suggested jokingly that we smile and pout and pose for them. Perhaps it was as well that we didn’t: we might have been arrested. If that was who they were, it was farcical. Me, of all people, a danger to the state? Do me a favour! It made me feel quite important though, in an amused sort of way. There was another small incident that did just make me wonder if we were under surveillance though. One evening around that time I’d phoned a friend in the group. I dialled his number, and when he picked up, before he spoke, there was a quiet but clearly discernible click on the line. My friend noticed it too. Later, off the phone, we speculated whether we were being bugged. I wonder if, somewhere, I’m recorded in a dusty security service file? It’s an intriguing thought.
It was a good day. We marched from St Pancras station to Trafalgar Square for a rally, with many uplifting speeches, although I forget now who the speakers were. It was all completely good-natured. There was no childish baiting of the police, no disorder followed by tough reaction followed by more disorder in a stupid escalation. There wasn’t a riot policeman to be seen. It was more akin to the quiet dignity of the earlier Aldermaston marches than the sometimes unruly events of today. Of course it made no impression on the Government (demonstrations, or petitions rarely do) but it made us feel good, that we were on the side of the angels. Today my attitude to nuclear power is mellower. For all its huge expense, both upfront and hidden in terms of safe waste disposal and decommissioning costs, we’ll perhaps have to have more of it in the energy mix in the future, along with as many renewable sources as possible.
I’ve described my time in the Ecology Party light-heartedly, as if we were no better than a bunch of students, snapping terrier-like but ineffectually at the ankles of the Establishment. But it all seemed like important stuff at the time, as the commune social experiment had done. Although my career as a local activist didn’t last (like so many of my enthusiasms), I retained a respect for and admiration of the party. It chimed most closely with my own value system. If other people more steadfast than me hadn’t stuck to their guns in spite of overwhelming odds against it ever being able to influence policy under the UK’s primitive and unfair voting system, there wouldn’t be a Green MP now. In the same way, I admire young environmentalists – they remind me of myself when their age – whereas students aspiring to be bankers leave me cold.
At the 2010 general election, disillusioned with and distrustful of New Labour and disappointed with the Lib Dems when my MP cynically (it seemed to me) aligned himself, in spite of the party’s supposed green credentials, with local wind farm objectors, I thought to hell with it and ‘wasted’ my vote, supporting the Green candidate. But at least I was voting according to principle, and I shall now do so, eccentric old git that I am, for the rest of my life.
Being in the proto-Green Party wasn’t all serious idealism though. It was the first time in my life that I’d joined any sort of group that offered a social life. They were a nice bunch of people, and we had good times, whether evenings in the pub, or each others’ houses, or the occasional party. It was nice to feel a bit of the commune spirit again: the sense that I had a circle of friends on whom I could call if in need, but without the oppression of living with any of them. They were quite a varied bunch. John, the car engineer, (who had an identical twin, which could sometimes be confusing) was very like a younger version of myself, with the same quiet, rather earnest, thoughtful personality. We often had pub evenings, sometimes including his brother, when we would get into deeply philosophical conversations. I liked them both a lot. I had a similar relationship to Tom, the other lecturer (he taught art) and he usually finished up at my place for coffee after party meetings in the pub down the road.
Vic, on the other hand, was more of a man’s man. I don’t know why now, but I gave him the impression that I liked country and western music (I don’t particularly), and found myself going with him to a pub that played it live on Friday nights. Vic liked a drink or three, and never having been a big drinker myself, I just couldn’t keep up with him. Within an hour of hitting the pub he was on his fourth pint, while I was struggling to finish my third and pleading to be allowed a half when he bought the next round. When the evening finished he would invite me back to his home for supper, which I could barely manage, and still more beer from his fridge, which absolutely had to be declined. It was a good thing that neither of us drove on those occasions. I kept this up for a few weeks, and then talked my way out of further booze-ups. I just wasn’t a natural drinking mate for him.
The same thing had happened when I first came back from Wales. Some of the lads from work went drinking on Friday nights, and I suppose they thought I might be lonely and would appreciate being included. As with Vic, I went out a few times with them but couldn’t keep it up. Simon particularly was another serious drinker, and he set the pace for the rest of us. Not being used to it, I became inebriated very quickly. I never got really stupid, just giggly, like a teenager trying it for the first time. By the ends of the evenings, which were usually spent at Simon’s for supper (sometimes curries, for goodness sake) I was ridiculous. Apart from finding everything hilarious, I would lose the power of speech. People would try to talk to me (and they sounded perfectly coherent) while I would struggle to form words, even monosyllabic ones, that resisted all efforts at construction. It was pathetic. I wasn’t being myself at all.
One evening that I’d really rather forget, we had gone to a country pub, one of Simon’s many locals. The famous Robert Plant, the Led Zeppelin rock star, who had a big country house nearby, was there with his entourage of mates. I don’t know whether they were the rest of the band or just friends basking in his reflected glamour, but they seemed to be as high as kites. Simon knew him quite well. When throwing-out time arrived they, and our group, had ended up outside the pub drunkenly (except me; I was just giggling) singing songs together at the tops of our voices. It really was a disgraceful debauch, although there was no aggression – people knew how to get drunk without things turning nasty in them days. Perhaps it was the tranquillising effect of the drugs the Plant contingent was probably on. After a few minutes of this carousing, the landlord, quite unfazed by Plant’s celebrity, had come out and told us all in no uncertain terms to go home: we were causing a disturbance.
The following morning I had felt deeply ashamed about it all (although a tiny part of me was wickedly proud that I’d brushed, fleetingly, with the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll world of a rock star) and I declined invitations to go on the razzle after that.
I was still anxious to find a lady friend. All the possible candidates from the bureau had been tried, with no more likely ladies being introduced. It had been rather an expensive waste of time, I reflected. So I tried the other route: lonely hearts adverts. If I worded the adverts carefully, there’d surely be as great a chance of striking lucky doing it this way. And if I advertised only in the local press, at least I’d not find myself travelling miles on wild goose chases. An advert went into the Wolverhampton Express and Star, a fairly large-circulation paper that encompassed Stourbridge. It was quite exciting, calling in at the local office of the paper to collect replies to my box number, then bearing them home to be avidly read. I did feel a little god-like, as I sorted the replies into ‘not interesting’, ‘interesting’ and perhaps one that stood out. I thought it only fair to reply to all respondents, as they’d gone to the – hopeful – trouble to write, if only to say no, sorry, I didn’t feel we had anything in common, but thanks for writing. Interesting replies received a letter about me and an invitation to meet. Stand-out ones got a very lengthy letter with the invitation, or if the respondent had been brave enough to include a contact number, a telephone call. There was one in this category. She was a few years younger than me, also divorced but childless, and doing a college course in social work. She sounded like a fellow-idealist, and she said she was intrigued by the fact that I was in the Ecology Party. In sociological terms at any rate, I was interesting to her. We met up, got on well together and had another night out. She then invited me to her house for supper, which led to my first sexual contact with someone other than Steph.
Ten years earlier I would never have imagined such a scenario. Attaching, in my innocent way, greater significance to this than there probably was, I promptly fell in love. This was the time of my trip to Ireland with the children. It was pathetic: I spent most of that week mooning over this discovery of love, and wishing the days away until my return and our reunion. The holiday over, there were just two more evenings – followed by nights – spent with Sue, and then it was over. She finished with me, saying that she didn’t want to get deeply into a relationship at the moment but concentrate on her training. Presumably she meant that she didn’t want to get any more involved with me. I embarrassed her rather by asking why not; she told me reluctantly that I was becoming possessive. She was probably right. Love can make you like that. It can me, anyway.
There were other attempts to find Ms Right. Stubbornly, I just wouldn’t give up. Then I thought I’d found her again. A lady closer to my own age replied to one of my adverts. She too was divorced, with a daughter about the same age as mine. Getting into a physical relationship with her happened even more quickly than it had with Sue. Needless to say, it wasn’t really due to my finely honed seduction techniques. She was a nice lady, intelligent and compassionate, but if anything this embryonic relationship relied even more on the physical than the last one. And again, I read too much into it. I felt sure something deeply beautiful would follow. But it was also complicated. Either that, or I was hopelessly naïve. After a few passionate nights it progressed to what promised to be a complete weekend together. So far she had resisted, quite rightly, introducing me to her daughter. I’d imagined that she wanted to wait until there was a fair chance of something developing before doing so. I’d arrived, late, as I’d always done so far, on the Friday night. On the Saturday I was to leave her flat early, before her daughter got up, and then return a little while later, as if visiting, when we would be introduced. I wandered around the town killing time, ending up on the bridge, where I gazed happily into the River Severn. Could this be the answer to my dreams?
I was jolted out of my reverie. Margaret had suddenly appearing at my side, looking very uncomfortable. She had something to tell me. She’d just had a phone call from an old boyfriend. He was in trouble. He’d gone to South Africa on the promise of earning a lot of money, but things hadn’t worked out for him, in fact he was almost penniless, with only enough to buy an air ticket home. He had no one to ask for help. Except Margaret. Could he stay with her, until he was back on his feet? Kind soul that she was, she’d reluctantly agreed. But it wouldn’t affect us, she assured me. She no longer had feelings for him – although my visits would have to stop while he was staying: it would obviously be decidedly awkward with him on the scene, and it would be rubbing salt into his wounds, seeing her with a new man.
I was shattered. What about my feelings? My bubble of euphoria had been cruelly burst. Apart from jealousy and insecurity (how did I know that her feelings wouldn’t be rekindled?) I couldn’t feel any empathy or sympathy for him. So he’d gone off to then apartheid South Africa, a despicable regime, obviously untroubled by any moral considerations, to get rich, and come unstuck. It served him bloody right, as far as I was concerned. And now he thought he could re-enter my woman’s life without so much as a by-your-leave. What a nerve!
Margaret pleaded with me to stay – her ex. wasn’t due back for a couple of weeks – but I just had to get out of the situation. I drove home, went straight to bed, curled in the foetal position and stayed there all day, crying. It was a devastating let down. During the following week there were phone calls from Margaret, anxiously asking how I was. Jealous and hurt, I let her know how, in no uncertain terms. It would have been better if she’d just let it go and leave me to get over it, but on the Friday evening she turned up on my doorstep clutching an overnight bag. Her daughter was staying with a friend, and she’d come for the weekend. Weakly, I couldn’t send her away. The evening, the night and the following Saturday were completely unreal; part of me was deliriously happy, but I was in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. I desperately wanted her, but felt I was being used badly. It seemed to be a crazy situation. On the Sunday I drove her back (she had no car) to her flat in Bridgnorth. Our weekend hadn’t caused her to change her mind about her ex. She still felt duty bound to help him out. Fair enough then, I thought bitterly, this is another potential relationship going nowhere. I said an angry goodbye.
I thought that was the end of it, until three weeks later when she knocked on my door again. The ex. had left her now, she said, looking at me hopefully. Clearly she wanted us to resume where we’d left off. But I’d had time to brood about my misfortune. Perhaps I should have given her the benefit of the doubt and recognised that she’d done what she felt was right, but I couldn’t find the generosity or trust for reconciliation. I’d lost out to a triangular situation at the end of my commune experience and was in no mood to, as I saw it, be messed around. I wanted an uncomplicated love life. So I was cold and polite but unaccommodating, and after while she left; and then that really was the end.
I was beginning to think that I was destined to spend the rest of my life in bachelorhood. But anyway, there were other concerns. I was reaching the end of the project, and I knew I didn’t want to stay in Wollaston after having lived in a much nicer environment, from my point of view, at Kingsnordley. All right: I was alone now and loveless, but at least I could get back to country living. I’d been looking around, just as a matter of interest, to see what sort of country places were available and found that, worryingly, there was rather a dearth of them. The days of being able to pick up a ruin to do up for a song seemed to be coming to an end. During the last eighteen months at Wollaston I really only saw two: a tiny detached cottage, quite similar to Kingsnordley, out in the depths of Worcestershire; and a pleasant detached house in Cleobury Mortimer, a pretty Shropshire village on the road to Ludlow. They were both nice, although the first one was probably a little too far away from Stourbridge as far as commuting to work was concerned. The thing they had in common though was they were on the market before I was ready to go on with Bridgnorth Road.
It was frustrating, and it was a situation I would find myself in many times in the future. My impatience, my premature seeking after the next project, the next situation that would be better than the present one, was being its usual curse. I was being my own worst enemy. As 1984 turned, I promised myself that I would go on the market that year, and as soon as possible.
Then there was another event of the romantic variety. I tried yet another lonely hearts advert. It didn’t bring many possibilities that seemed worth pursuing, apart from one. A young lady wrote. She sounded bright and interesting, although I vaguely wondered why she was replying to an advert placed by a middle-aged man (I was now forty-one). We had the usual first meeting in a pub, and I liked her. The attraction seemed to be mutual.
We met again, and then a further time, and quickly became a pair. When I asked why she didn’t prefer men her own age, she was dismissive of them. She thought they were shallow and immature. Remembering myself in my early twenties I could see her point, but all the same, there was a considerable age difference. It didn’t seem to bother her though. For me, of course, it was quite flattering. I rationalised it to myself by thinking that, whilst a bit unconventional, it wasn’t unheard of for people with a big disparity in ages to form relationships. There was also the point that, after Margaret, Sandra was uncomplicated and devoid of emotional baggage. And after my previous bruising experience (not to mention the other ones), being reassuringly accepted in a straightforward way was something I craved. We spent a happy spring of evenings drinking (moderately!) walking and being happy together, without making too many demands on each other.
Meanwhile, the time had come to put the house on the market. The project was finished and I was pleased with the result. After getting two valuations, I went on at £27,500. Yes I know: it sounds nothing by present day standards, but in 1984 it was the average price for a small detached house. The sale went spectacularly well. Within a week I had a buyer. The third couple who came to view were impressed with what I’d done, and came back in less than two hours and offered my asking price. I was absolutely delighted; it was an acclamation of all my work. I accepted, with alacrity.
But now I had a problem. The small matter of something else to buy. I’d deliberately done things this way round, rather than find a house I really liked, make an offer and then have the worry of selling my existing place as quickly as possible. Doing it this way, I reasoned, I wasn’t under pressure to sell for whatever I could get: time was on my side. Except of course, conversely I now had to find another place pretty damn quickly. And as I’ve said before, there were few suitable properties on the market.
The only reasonable candidate was a semi-detached cottage out in the country standing beside the main road from Wolverhampton to Bridgnorth. At £20,000, it had an asking price I could afford. Taking Sandra with me, I went to have a look. Whilst not being completely what I would have liked (it didn’t have the potential of Kingsnordley) it was still quite nice. The two houses were built of white painted brick and probably Victorian. It was tiny, consisting of just one downstairs room with a miniscule lean-to back kitchen entered through an unbelievably low back door. Even I had to duck to go through it. A wonderfully primitive and steep winding staircase beside the chimneybreast led up to two bedrooms that looked as if they’d been partitioned out of just one.
I was pleased to see that it was completely un-modernised. There was no proper bathroom, although there was a bath. It was in the back kitchen, covered when not in use by a crude lift-off low-level work surface, just like at the cottage when I was a child. There was a flushing toilet, but it was outside, in a sub-lean-too against the kitchen. I noticed that the people in the neighbouring house had replaced their back kitchen with a two-storey extension, presumably giving them a good-sized kitchen with a bedroom and bathroom above. That was interesting: if they’d done it, I probably could too.
The cottage’s position wasn’t all I would have wished: although it stood well back from the road with a deep front garden, the noise from the traffic streaming at high speed through the small hamlet, Hilton, was loud and incessant. On the other hand, there was another sizeable garden area at the back, and it also went around the rear of the neighbouring garden, forming an L-shape. There were several mature trees along the rear boundary, and beyond them open fields. So if you weren’t bothered by the traffic noise, the gardens had a lot of potential.
I went home and thought about it. Although not perfect, it had quite a lot going for it. It was certainly a good renovation and extension candidate. And the maths were good. After repaying the mortgage on Bridgnorth Road, and legal costs, I would have enough cash in hand to buy 11 Hilton outright and thus be free from the tyranny of a new mortgage. Now having greater experience and being able to do most of the work myself, I could afford to fund the building works out of my income. And apart from anything else, there were no other project options available anyway. So it had to be this one. The following day I rang the selling agent and offered the asking price.