|Auntie Edna & Uncle Joe |
Preston Holiday Week 1960
He pulled one out; “Memory Lane” was embossed in a flowing gold script across the cover. He took out another with a tartan cover and the words “Boots’ Photograph Album” printed in a utilitarian black print across the top. A third, “All Your Yesterdays De-Luxe Photograph Album”, said the legend - and to show that it was “De-Luxe” the corners of the cover were decorated with cheap imitation brass and at the spine a bow with fraying tassels tied the pages into the album. He sat on the edge of the mattress and flicked open the album and looked at the black and white faces that stared back at him from the past, his past.
On the inside of the cover written in a neat, rounded, unsophisticated schoolgirl like hand was his Auntie’s name “Edna Park”. His mother had never been one for photographs and certainly not for keeping them for sentimental reasons, but her sister, his auntie, had always liked to snap with her cheap little plastic Kodak Brownie camera. Edna had died several years before his mother and his mother had obviously, and strangely he thought, kept her sister’s photograph albums after clearing out Edna’s house. He instinctively shook his head in bewilderment sadly doubting that his mother had ever taken them out of the box in the years following Edna’s death. He had loved his mother and he knew that she had loved him, but had known from an early age that she didn’t “do” sentiment or shows of tender emotion; life was for working not reminiscing or dreaming. As she’d had so often reminded him, “There’s plenty of time for dreaming when you’re in your box”.
|Lake Coniston 1955|
He flicked open more of the albums. In the front of each was Edna’s neat handwriting and under the photographs written in blue biro, names or places: “Morecambe July 1953”, “Joe at No. 39 Fishwick View May 1956”, “Chester Zoo August 1956”, “Doris, Fred and Tony at Blackpool 1957”, “Picnic Trough of Bowland 1960”......... .He looked at the long gone faces, the dresses that he remembered his mother and auntie wearing, his uncle’s hand knitted cardigan that he always seemed to wear whatever the weather. As he gazed at the photograph of the Trough of Bowland he could almost smell the meths from the little primus stove that his father always took in the boot of the car that they hired for the week to take them for days out in Preston holiday week; Joe and his father crouching as they sorted the china cups while waiting for the primus to boil the little kettle. His mother, Edna, Joe and him travelling around Lancashire as his dad, the only driver, took them to the seaside and other beauty spots and occasionally stopped by the roadside for an picnic or a “brew”.
|Outside No 18 Caroline Street 1954|
He turned the pages, running his fingers across the photographs; most were stuck firmly with glue – he could still picture the little bottle of glue that his auntie kept for the purpose, bought at Joe Unsworth’s newsagents - between the off licence and the cake shop - on New Hall Lane at the end of Caroline Street. The bottle had a red rubber top with a slit out of which the glue came – except that at the end of each use the slit got blocked with dried glue and he could picture his auntie swearing quietly as she tried to unblock the slit with a pair of scissors. Some of the albums had the pictures mounted with little white corner pieces which he remembered you could buy at Boots or Woolworths. He lifted the black sugar paper page to his nose and sniffed it. Instantly he was back at 39 Fishwick View – his auntie’s house - as if yesterday: homemade chicken soup, tinned salmon, chocolate éclairs, Pears soap, Carnation Cream, evaporated milk, tins of mandarin oranges......the smells and tastes of his childhood spent so often at his auntie’s. Unlike his mother, who so often raged against the world and believed firmly in her oft quoted motto “It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken”, his auntie, a Lancashire lass, a cotton weaver, had simple pleasures, gave unconditional love and seemed to live by the name on the label of her favourite bottle of beer that she drank once a week at the New Hall Lane Tavern: Dutton’s “OBJ – Oh Be Joyful”. And deep inside he wept.
Auntie Edna's once a week tipple
at the New Hall Lane Tavern: 'OBJ'
"Oh Be Joyful" - and she was!
The faces peered back at him and he remembered times that he had never truly forgotten: a crowded Christmas tea when the family gathered at his auntie’s, doing the “Twist” as Chubby Checker blared out from the radiogram in Edna’s front room, standing with Tony and Gary Clarkson in front of his house - each in their khaki summer shorts, bare chested, and each of thinking themselves the height of cool, sporting their snake buckle belts. And, there he was standing on the pebbles at the side of the River Ribble throwing stones to make them bounce on the water’s surface while his father, Joe and Edna enjoyed a glass of shandy at the nearby Bridge Inn on a balmy Saturday evening. He remembered as if yesterday those Saturday evening walks down through the country and the allotments on the edge of Preston known as Fishwick Bottoms or locally as the “Loney” or the “Bonk”. Walking down the hill and hoping, praying even, that his mother would not be difficult again, that another argument would not spoil the night; that perhaps his mother would, for once, have a glass of shandy or even just a lemonade to show that she was like other people. But she never did, and another tear misted his eye.
|Gary, Tony & Me Caroline Street 1957|
He ruefully reflected that photographs give only half of the story; the smiles but not the tears; the good times, but never what goes on behind closed doors and in the darkness of family minds. He ran his fingers again over the photographs, touching the faces on the bits of paper that held such memories but in reality told so little. His auntie would have had them developed at the chemist’s in New Hall Lane; he imagined her standing outside the shop pulling them from the packet to see if they had turned out. In her broad Lancashire accent she would pass them around and say “Eeeh, that’s a good ‘un of Tony, I’ve got the negative, do you want me to get one for you Doris?” But his mother rarely did – she seemed always to want to set herself apart, to be strong and display no weakness by outward shows of sentimentality. He traced his fingers again around the faces; his auntie’s fingers would have touched them, she was still on them, he was touching what she had once touched and he suddenly realised how very personal they were; things from the past, touched, treasured and once loved. Not at all like the digital photographs that he kept on his lap top – just pixels in cyberspace with no permanence, gone when he closed the lap top lid, convenient but not personal. Have we lost something of our humanity he wondered, lost the capacity to touch and feel as we increasingly store all that we know and do in cyberspace; emails not handwritten letters, digital blogs not diaries, photographs of a million pixels and not a printed piece of photographic paper that can be kept, loved and treasured; a physical link with the past and the person pictured or who wrote them, personalised them with their own handwriting style - left their mark, who touched them?
|Lancaster Canal at Torrisholm Preton Holidays 1960|
Here was his childhood – the cowboy suit with the tassled waistcoat, him sitting in Lake Coniston with Joe and his father standing in the lake their trousers rolled up, him sitting fishing in the Lancaster Canal, his father, a young man standing in his demob suit holding a small baby – him, a family group his mother, as ever, never looking at the camera. So much of his family’s history, so much of who and what he was. And, suddenly, he felt an overwhelming urge to sob. So many good times captured by his auntie’s cheap little plastic Kodak Brownie but never a photograph of him sitting at the top of the stairs night after night sobbing, terrified, as his mother shouted in anger while his father meekly stood soaking up her rage, rarely replying, until she burned herself out and stormed off to bed. No photographs of the mealtimes when he had sat silent dreading that his mother would pick up on some small thing and launch into another vitriolic tirade – the peas not being hot enough, the gravy too thin...always his father’s fault since he had cooked the Sunday dinner as she lay in bed till lunchtime completing the Sunday Express crossword. The camera never recorded the thousands of times when, daily, he had desperately made inane comments, or asked stupid questions – anything to deflect the conversation and distract his mother so that her bubbling inner rage against the world and his father did not erupt. The camera never showed these nor what went on inside his young mind – and which still, nearly seven decades later still ate away at his inner being leaving only anxiety, fear, regret and guilt.
|Making a brew near the Trough of Bowland|
He looked up at the ugly wardrobe and remembered the day his father had at last broke. He had stood, tears streaming down his face, as his father stood in front of the wardrobe stuffing his few belongings into a bag while his mother screamed “That’s, right, clear off like a rat from a sinking ship......” . And then she grabbed the boy’s hand and dragged him downstairs and out along the streets into the 1950s Preston’s Saturday afternoon shopping throng. When, hours later they returned, her anger left in Woolworths and British Home Stores the boy was terrified; his father would be gone, forever. But when they opened the door, his father was sitting, red eyed, in front of the coal fire. He stood and said “Hello Love, all the cleaning up’s done, and I’ve changed the beds – as he did every Saturday afternoon when he came home from work – “Do you want a brew Love - you must be ready for one?”. His wife, the boy’s mother, said nothing, as if the flare up had never happened – until, the boy knew, it would happen again.
The camera never lies, but it tells only half of the truth.