21 August, 2013

Leaving Their Mark.

Winnie on her wedding day
My mother in law, Winnie Green, would have been a hundred years old a few days ago. Sadly she never made it – she died about six or seven years ago – but she still lives on every day in our minds and in our house. I don’t mean that we still morbidly think of her passing or weep tears – no, we laugh at her well remembered sayings and at her “obsession” with getting a bargain. No day was complete for Winnie unless she had managed to get a bargain on one of her many trips to the shops! We chuckle at all the events remembered – like the New Year’s Eve when we came home late after a night spent in London at the theatre (a family tradition for many years) and we ended up pushing her for a short distance in a supermarket trolley - to the huge embarrassment of one of her daughters and her granddaughters. Mother was not drunk – she  never touched a drop of alcohol but she simply liked a bit of fun. We remember her love of brightly coloured flowers, her love of and skill at ballroom dancing and the wonderful Sunday dinners that she cooked for us. Her steak and kidney puddings were the stuff of legend and when Pat cooks one on some dark winter’s day I am most appreciative but always say “Delicious dear.......but not as good as your mum’s!”  Mum could be frustrating and stubborn – indeed she often drove Pat and her sister to distraction in her quest for a bargain – but her enthusiasm for life and interest in everyone was a lesson to us all. Each time Pat and I returned from our annual holiday one of the joys was telling Winnie all about it – she wanted to know all the details, see all the photographs, know where we had been and what we had seen – she was simply massively interested in people and things - and that interest made others feel important and valuable.  We always had something to say to her and she to us.

Four generations - Winnie, daughter
 Pat, granddaughter Kate and
great granddaughter Sophie
What you saw was what you got. She could not abide pomposity, self righteousness or ‘putting on airs’ . She had the common touch without being common and  could spot hubris and pomposity a mile off – hence her great ‘put down’ line: ‘Oh,  he used to chew  bread for my ducks’ when someone was being pompous, self righteous or big headed. She was absolutely right!   Winnie was filled with a simple common sense and humility and at the same time was a woman of huge compassion and great wisdom.  She often said (and especially as she approached her 90th year) that no other generation could have lived through so much change as her generation. She was right – horse drawn carriages to computers, a world ever smaller as travel became easier, corner shops becoming great supermarkets. But she retained her interest in life to the end  - only a few days before she died (and we knew the end was near)  I was sorting out her lap top so that she could continue to play a game of cards on it! She had grown up in humble circumstances and like the rest of her generation had to cope with the depression of the 1930s and the second World War and so for much of her life had to watch the pennies.  But hard work and careful management meant that later in life she had a nice house and was "comfortable" – but despite that she never lost the drive to find a bargain! And although she was amazed at what youngsters spent money on and how much money people seemed to have in the modern world I never heard her once moan or begrudge them their success or good fortune – she was simply pleased for them.
Winnie's ninetieth birthday  family gathering

So, although Winnie has been dead for several years she is still very much alive for us. When we go on holiday Pat carries a small picture of her in her purse and at some point we will say “Are you enjoying this holiday mum”..........and I swear we somewhere hear a tiny voice replying “Oh yes – lovelywhen are we having an ice cream!”. When we look out of the window and see a robin on the tree we both say  “Mum’s on the tree” – it was a family joke that she would leave in her will  two rather “tatty” Christmas robins to our son – and she did. Since then, to all in the family, Winnie has become the garden robin – bright and cheerful even on the darkest winter’s day. When we sit and enjoy a nice Sunday joint one of us will sooner or later remark “Where are you Winnie - you'd enjoy this”? And when I occasionally I go into one of the kitchen cupboard drawers I will say “Oh Patricia” (as Mum always called Pat) “look at the state of this drawer” – and we will both laugh remembering how when mum came to stay it wouldn’t be long before she was tidying out a drawer or furiously polishing the door knocker and saying “Oh Patricia, how could you let it get in this state”!  The worrying thing is that both Pat and I know only too well that as we get older just as I am changing into my dad, Pat is becoming her mother – I frequently now refer to her as Winnie!

Winnie gave unconditional love to everyone – not sloppy overwhelming love but sincere quiet love. She was not hugely demonstrative nor did she wear her heart on her sleeve but she was always interested in you and your views. She had the capacity to make you feel good and to feel in some way secure and valued in her presence. Even though generations divided us - and I have absolutely no doubt that she occasionally disapproved of our life or spending habits or way of bringing up children - she was always interested in us and what we were doing. Whenever we saw her it would not be long before she would say to me “What do you think about [some item of news] it, Tony”  She included everyone in her world and we loved her for it.

I was thinking about this the other day – partly because it was her birthday – but also because of a couple of other events. 

Blogger Leann posted a blog a few days ago and in it she mentioned that she had recently lost her Nana – a lady who clearly meant much to her and was much missed. See Leann’s blog (Medical Monday) at  http://crazyworld-leann.blogspot.co.uk/ . From what Leann said in her blog I recognised many of the things that we valued in our Winnie. I’m sure that Leann will allow me to quote a few lines from her blog:Her sayings still play out in my mind everyday - when I want to throw in the towel I hear her tell me I have had my self-pity and it is time to move on; or when I didn't understand why my life had taken a turn I didn't expect she would tell me everything happens for a reason and I will understand it someday if I take the time to look back. More often than I want to admit she was right. There was always a place at her kitchen table and a cup of tea ready if you needed it. She taught me about opening my door to others even if I don't think I have enough for me. She taught me about faith and hope and strength and understanding. She was my idol and my moral compass. I will miss her more than I can even think about and not a day has gone by that I have not thought of her and the hope that wherever she is, she is happy and proud”.

I’m sure that many have experienced and known people of the type that Leann describes and the impact that they can have upon our lives. By coincidence, in the past week or two, I have been involved in another venture which has caused me to reflect upon another person whose life impacted upon mine and who is still very much alive despite having left this world forty years ago.

John Derbyshire just before
the Great War
A week or two ago I posted some old family photographs on a web site called the Preston Digital Archive. It is just that - a web site which records old photographs of people, places, events and items concerned with the town of Preston where I was born and grew up. I felt this was the right thing to do so that others might enjoy them rather than them simply sit unseen in a plastic box in my office. They caused quite a stir! I had a lot of feedback from Preston residents who could remember the people and places depicted in the photographs and it was good to have contact again with the town of my birth and which I have not visited since my father died a few years ago. I was contacted by the local newspaper who were especially interested in some World War 1 photographs and items relating to my grandfather, grandmother and my great uncle  - photographs of young men proudly standing in their uniforms or wrapped in bandages recovering from their wounds, a number of postcards that my grandmother had sent to my grandfather as he fought in the trenches of France and a letter - written by my grandfather - begging for an increase in his war pension (see my blog Touching the Past -  http://www.arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/back-to-blogging-weve-been-away-to.html ). In short, the local newspaper was interested in doing an article about local men like my relations who were caught up in the Great War – “a bit of local interest, human side of the Great War”  the journalist wrote to me -  to coincide with the centenary in 2014 of that tragic event. So, I spent a few days scanning old pictures and writing up notes on the story of my grandfather Joseph and his younger brother John. All that will be the subject of a future blog!

My great uncle, John Derbyshire, was “my hero”. I had always liked him, even as a young child and the fact that he was by then well into his middle age was irrelevant – I suppose that you can say we “clicked”. To me, a youngster, he seemed exciting and a bit different. A lifelong bachelor he was a bit of a “man about town” and although he dressed in his working clothes whilst he tended the garden and did other jobs, when he went out in the evening for a quiet pint of beer he would look, to my young eyes, rather smart and dashing in an old fashioned sort of way – stiff collar, tightly knotted tie, highly polished brown shoes, gold watch chain on his waistcoat. But best of all was what I knew of him. He had run away to war when he was still a youngster. His older brother Joe had joined up and John six years younger and still only 16 broke all the rules and without permission had joined up. I can remember my great grandmother telling me, as a very old lady, that she had no idea where her son John had gone – except that he had gone off to war. By the time John was 18 he was lying wounded in France  and had lost the use of his eye when it was struck by shrapnel. At last word  came to his mother in Preston that he was in hospital somewhere in London and his brother Joe, who happened to be on leave  recuperating from his own injuries, set off to the capital to find his younger brother. I can still remember both my grandfather and great uncle relating the story of how Joe searched the London hospitals for his injured brother – of course the problem was that John had his face bandaged up so was not easily recognisable! Eventually, however, he was found and sometime later returned to Preston, his war service over - and, I suspect, a severe reprimand from his mother and father!

Ready to go to the trenches - John stands back row extreme left.
Click to enlarge and you will see how very young some of the "boys"
look . I find the whole thing impossible to comprehend but it seems
to me that John was not alone in going off to war at a very young age.
For me as a nine or ten year old this was the stuff of dreams and high adventure and it gave this quiet, gentle elderly man an air of mystery and excitement! It was further regularly heightened to me when, whenever we went to visit him he would take out what he called his “war souvenir” - his glass eye - and lay it on the mantelpiece! It was his party trick!

He had only had a very ordinary job – working at the local creamery but as I grew up to teenage years it increasingly seemed to me that he had more to him. He was well read and seemed to have important things to say. He seemed to me to “know things”. As I grew up I can remember increasingly having serious conversations with him about world events – he was articulate and understanding and even to my teenage ears it was clear that John was no fool about politics, literature or current events. He was an astute gentleman. Each night I remember he would listen to the nine o'clock news on the radio – an old crackly machine that looked as if it came from the Great War! - and he would always comment on the news saying things which seemed to my young ears to be very “clever” and thoughtful. I can remember talking about the Kennedy assassination with him and although  by then he was in his late sixties I was thrilled that he wanted to know what I, a mere teenager, thought. I remember him talking about previous American Presidents like Roosevelt and at the same time awakening an interest in me. When I talked to him it seemed  to me that he always listened intently and responded – not always agreeing, sometimes gently contradicting me,  but always recognising my opinions as worthy of consideration.  And as I grew he became a firm friend – in the last year or two before I went off to teacher training college I would enjoy sharing a beer with him and my dad on Saturday night – a nineteen year old and a seventy year old enjoying each other’s company. Even though  the  years separated us he could always “connect”. Despite his 60 or 70 years he seemed to me to be a modern man and still young at heart. He had the capacity to talk to you and not at you.  I remember him once asking me “Now come on Tony tell me about these Rolling Stones (this was in the early 60s!) why do you youngsters like them?”   I can also remember him talking of the first great Liverpool football team created by Bill Shankley as they succeeded in Europe and telling me “that’s the way that football is going to be played from now on – none of this kick and rush stuff that we've been used to”. To me, as a teenager, used to parents and older people putting teenagers down this was music to my young ears. And I still vividly remember, when I was about to go off to college and (much to my mother’s disapproval) I had opened a bank account complete with a cheque book (an unknown item in my family in those days) he spoke up for me when my mother expressed her concerns about me having a cheque book“Now I’ve been reading in the papers”, he said to my mother “that in a few years time we will all be paying for things with bits of plastic. Tony’s a young man now he has to be modern and move with the world”.   Paying with plastic! – I wonder if even Uncle John could have comprehended how the world would change! John seemed to me at the time – and indeed still does, to have had his finger on the pulse – he seemed to have thought things out and was his own man.
Recuperating from the loss of an eye - John marked with a cross
The boy who ran off to war remained a young man at heart up until he died in the early 70s and I have often reflected, over the years, that it was through him that I learned much about growing up. He wasn’t loud or brash or talkative – indeed, if we sat in the pub, him enjoying his half pint he often would say little, but what came out was always worth listening to.  Like my mother in law and, I suspect, like Leann’s  Nana,  he had no agenda he just quietly got on with life. I have no idea why he never married but lived with his mother until she died.  But whatever the reason for his bachelorhood he was a lovely and much loved man.  And his love was unconditional. He was what you saw and you learned not only from what he said but from what he did. He had a quiet authority and I loved and respected him not because he demanded it but because of what he did, how he did it, his interest in me - and the obvious value that he placed upon me and my young beliefs and feelings. He listened to me and such advice as he might have wanted to impart he did without expectation or insistence. I don’t know whether he saw himself as older and therefore wiser (although he clearly was)  but he never thrust that experience down my throat.  Whatever experiences and wisdom he had gleaned from his life was passed on without it being a lesson or a homily – I  learned from the man he was and not what he said.

John as I largely remember him.
When my own son was born in 1974 there was only ever going to be one name for him – John. And even today, all these years after my great uncle’s death I still think of him and those quiet conversations and those half pints we shared in the village pub. I still imagine him as a young boy running off to war and being involved in the terror of the trenches – a thing that I cannot begin to comprehend but which he just took in his stride – never boasting of his involvement or complaining about the injury that changed his life. Like others of his generation, including my mother in law – he just got on with things. Sometimes it seems a far cry from today when so many appear to wear their hearts on their sleeves and want to shout from the rooftops of their disadvantage and problems, or vent their spleen against society and its unfairness. I'm sure that both John and Winnie had many things that they could have complained about - the hardships of their lives, the impact of war upon them, their broken dreams great sadnesses and all the other things that go into being human - but I rarely, if ever, heard them do it – they simply got on with it. Maybe there's a lesson for all of us there.

I've often reflect that John could have had no inkling that he would have so much effect and importance to me - and indeed still does. I don't know how he would have reacted to that - probably just quietly smiled and nodded. But I'd like to think that deep down he would have had some quiet satisfaction that although he had no children of his own he had made such an impression on me and my life. And when I think of uncle John – and of Winnie - who would have been a hundred this week - I am reminded of the poem by Brian Patten that we put on the front of the Order of Service for Winnie’s funeral. I don’t think that we could have comprehended how true it would be in her case – that despite her death in 2006 (and despite John’s death so many years previously) they would still very much live on - not as vague distant memories but as people who are still very much part of our lives and who still in their way speak to us..

by Brian Patten

How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?

Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be busy with administrations.
So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?

We fret and ask so many questions -
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple after all.
A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

His lover will carry his man's scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share his terrors.

And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.

So, how long does a man live after all?
A man lives so many different lengths of time.

10 August, 2013

Dung Beetles, Coal Mines & Sporting VIPs!

This week, as always at this time of the year,  we have our two granddaughters staying with us so each day is taken up entertaining a ten year old and an eight year old. Fortunately the weather is good so we are able to get out and about. On Monday we popped over to Leicester to enjoy a wonderful day at the National Space Centre and  on Wednesday we spent a long day at the Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville, Leicestershire. Snibston is a super day out – science, technology and local industry come together to provide children (and adults!) with lots of things to enjoy, learn and discover. The girls did scientific experiments, made a compost maker in an old plastic bottle, looked at displays of local industry and technology  ranging from fashion to coal mining to transport and everything in between. Neither they nor we wanted to come home!

Enjoying one of the many science
tests at Snibston
One of the things that we especially enjoyed was a tour of the coal mine – the discovery museum is built on the site of a disused mine – once part of Leicestershire’s industrial base. We were taken round by a retired miner who was wonderful in the stories that he told, the information that he gave and “picture” he so skilfully painted of what life was like deep underground both when he was working there and in the distant past. It was a salutary reminder of the grim life that these men led and which we all took for granted. There were about twenty of us in the group that went round the site – visiting the various places that defined the miner’s day and by the time that we reached the end of the tour no-one – young or old (and there were many children) were in any doubt about the harsh reality of the coal miner’s life. What came over to was not only the conditions that these men worked in day in day out, not just the fact of descending deep into the dark bowels of the earth for several hours  each day, not only the sheer hard grinding physical  toil but something else. It was the discipline of the whole thing – both personal and professional. Time after time we were reminded – for example, as we sat looking and listening in the  explosives room or the surgery or the room where helmets, lights and batteries were collected and handed in each day that the miners had to adhere to a strict code for the good of everyone and themselves. Each man had to be totally reliable and disciplined both for himself and his colleagues. We looked at the banned items – things that could not be taken down the mine – innocuous, everyday things such as a bar of chocolate, a torch battery, a sweet wrapper or a personal  item. And the reason – unlikely though it might seem - these could unknowingly or accidentally bring danger a thousand feet underground in what were already dangerous and difficult working environment.
We heard and saw how the miner would use his face mask in the event of fire and how, if he was lucky, it might give him a few extra minutes before smoke and carbon monoxide overtook him – but this at a price. The wearing of the mask was painful, uncomfortable and overbearing, but the alternative was a quick death. Again – discipline and strength of character – both to submit to the rules unquestionably and apply them yourself for your own safety and that of your colleagues.

The leader of our tour commented that one of the questions that he often gets asked especially when showing children/school groups around the mine is “Where did the miners go to the toilet when they were far underground”. His answer was, they couldn’t – you made sure that you went before descending, but if you had to go then there was no alternative but to doing it in public. Of course all the children squirmed and went “Yuk” – a perfectly normal reaction - and the miner commented that the men didn’t like it either so did everything in their power to ensure that it didn’t happen.

Ready for the coal mine tour
It would not be untrue to say that even though many of us, I am sure, knew much about the life of a miner and the conditions that they worked under we were all in places a bit lost for words. To the children it must have seemed a far distant planet.

As I sat listening I thought back to a brief conversation we had had with Ellie our eight year old granddaughter that morning. As we all lay in bed together talking about what we were going to do during the day Ellie asked what time we were going out. Pat told her and Ellie very seriously told us that she couldn’t go out that early since “My dung beetle is giving birth just then”. Pat and I looked at her in amazement – what was she talking about? Ellie quickly explained she has a game on her computer tablet and she has to “look after” a virtual reality dung beetle. There you go then! As I sat listening to the tales of the coal mine I wondered – seriously – how that, the “caring for a digital dung beetle - fits into the great scheme of things. Only 150 years ago children younger than Ellie were already working and dying in the mines. To Ellie the biggest problem she had was a virtual reality dung beetle. I can’t escape the conclusion that we have gone wrong somewhere – not in banning child labour in mines but in developing a world where, it seems to me, our young are increasingly losing all sense of the realities of the real world -  all is increasingly trivial and of the moment. They are continually living in a play world, unwilling and increasingly unexpected to develop basic life skills and responsibilities of adulthood. A play world might be fine for an eight year old but it increasingly seems to me that it extends further and further into what should be adulthood with young people having, perhaps, a misguided sense of reality and increasingly inhabiting a world bereft of responsibility.
I was still pondering this depressing (but I believe true) thought as the tour ended and we made our way to the cafe for lunch. We sat enjoying our sandwiches and as we did so I checked my smartphone for any e-mails. I glanced at the BBC news and read to my disgust of the behaviour of the England Cricket star Monty Panesar. Panesar is one of the foremost cricketers of the world -  a hugely paid and celebrated sportsman. Earlier this week he was convicted of urinating on some doormen at a night club. Apparently, he was celebrating at a club in Brighton and a number of young women complained that he was harassing them. I understand that he was asked to leave, a dispute broke out and he was ejected from the club. He then urinated on the doormen who chased him and caught him cowering in a shop. Police were called and the rest, as they say is history. A poor kind of history and a sad indictment on the man and his celebrity status!

Of course, having been convicted apologised for his behaviour – except he didn’t – it was “his spokesman” who apologised on his behalf. He wasn’t even man enough to appear himself – in  my view,  what a sad and despicable man.  I read that apparently this gentleman has been of increasing concern to his club and his country by his behaviour of late – but of course, he is a sportsman so is forgiven everything that any normal person would be expected to comply with and his celebrity status guarantees that despite his actions he will still be lauded and drooled over – and, of course forgiven. Apart from the obvious totally unacceptable crime of urinating on another person (one would severely chastise a three year old for that!) one might also ask what he was doing at a night club at 3 a.m. in the middle of the high point of international cricket an Ashes test series in which he was involved. Not a lot of discipline there either personal or professional. 

The delightful Mr Panesar - a man
so shallow that he cannot even apologise
personally for his offensive behaviour
As I sat reading this I thought of the miners we had just been hearing about and their self and professional discipline. Poorly paid men who in this day and age might well have questioned some of the rules they had to obey or that they imposed upon themselves. Would they have urinated on someone?  Maybe - I don’t know – but if they had then I’m pretty sure they would not have run away and then not been man enough to stand up and admit it. They wouldn’t have had “a spokesman” to do it on their behalf.

This morning I read a letter in the Guardian from a lady in a pleasant village just down the road from me – she sadly commented upon the skills that the young men of her village are developing in this modern age. It was gratifying, she ironically commented, that young men are learning how to “multi-task” – she had just observed a young man drawing cash out of the local ATM in the village market square and at the same time urinating against the wall. Well, there you go then. No miner’s discipline there then! Maybe the young man concerned was a pal of Monty Panesar. Maybe they were both VIP members of this superclub utilising the life skills that only VIPs have!

But back to the cafe! Having read about the unacceptable antics of one of our top cricketers I looked further at my smartphone and read that the continuing, soul destroying tale of the Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez grinds on and on. The headlines said that Suarez is adamant that he will leave Liverpool for another club because he says at his age “I have to think of my career first”. Errrrr – no, age or career has nothing to do with it. What should be his priority is the contractual promises and obligations that he made to Liverpool and for which he is paid huge amounts. His contract has not expired – he simply sees greener grass elsewhere. This is the man who has received a number of bans for amongst other things biting a fellow player, making racist remarks to fellow players and cheating on the field of play. At every point Liverpool stood stoutly (and wrongly) by him but now when he sees more money on the horizon so he wants off. Of course, he will probably get what he wants in the end – Liverpool cannot have a discontented player who disrupts the team – and young fans will, therefore, see him get waht he wants and  assume this appropriate behaviour from a man who is idolised. No thought here of his responsibilities and the fact that he is paid huge amounts of money to play a game for just 90 minutes each week. No thoughts here that, just maybe, having signed a contract and been paid the sort of money in one week that a miner would have to work back breakingly hard almost for life to earn he might have some moral, let alone legal, obligation to the club and the fans who pay his wages.

Suarez - make sure that you don't enter into any
kind of contract with him - he'll walk away from it since
his needs, he confesses, are more important than
the commitments he has made to his employers and
and his team mates
It is perhaps not insignificant that this week Saurez has been made to train away from the rest of the team because of the effect he is having on his team mates. Panesar, too, is under scrutiny by his County team because of his “negative attitude” and the effect that it is having on the squad. Both of these situations I guess would have been quite unrecognisable to a miner who knew that his everyday health and well being depended upon being able to be good team member, obeying the rules for the good of all, being able to rely on your friends and they in turn being able to rely upon you

Clearly both these young men live in a parallel universe totally oblivious to the accepted codes of behaviour and moral response. The world in which they live is like that of my granddaughter’s dung beetle totally unreal – and yet, the tragic part is that millions throughout the world think that this is alright!  Sadly these fans will continue to mindlessly applaud their sporting celebrity heroes – their every transgression forgiven and “understood”  all because they are sportsmen (allegedly) and celebrities. Millions, it seems, are happy that their heroes can get away with this – things that if they behaved in a similar fashion then their own employer would almost certainly  show them the door and society would almost certainly be much less forgiving of their actions. We live in an increasingly strange world!
Keeping the ball in the air without touching it -
science again at Snibston

And this is the world that my grandchildren are growing into. Already they are living for part of the time in a virtual reality world – a place removed from reality were a digital dung beetle is seen as important. That, of course, is only a game but as I get older I  question more and more what the young will increasingly see as an acceptable world. In the face of virtual dung beetles, “VIP superclubs” and celebrity sportsmen with huge cult followings who live a life devoid of and oblivious to many of the basic human codes and responsibilities I think parents today should be very, very afraid. Sadly, I don’t think that they are because in the end it’s not seen as important any more – life is just there to be enjoyed seems to be the modern credo. Maybe Mr Panesar and Mr Suarez need a few shifts down a mine to alter their perspective on life and, sad to say, just maybe we need to expect more of our young so that they learn to discriminate the world of virtual dung beetles and celebrities from the real world – but somehow I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.