I once read a quote by Bob Geldof that rubbished school productions of Christmas nativity plays. In fact he said, "School plays are total complete and utter sh*te." I suppose he's entitled to his opinion. I felt much the same way about his creative output, until I heard his most recent effort, entitled, 'How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell'. I suppose, if nothing else, this album went some way towards proving that, behind the self-styled image of 'grumpy old man' there really beats a heart of vinyl.
As we took our seats in the village hall, this afternoon, for a school performance of 'Tinsel and Tea Towels', Geldof's words were still echoing far off in the distance. But his whinges were blown away as we were confronted with a sea of small children, haloed in tinsel, craning their necks for a glimpse of a friendly relative, and desperately trying not to get their angel's wings tangled up.
Speckly Woo and her classmates were dressed for the donkey dance. Complete with plaited tail, long ears, and a streak of stubbornness usually reserved for real donkeys, they entertained us, along with the rest of the cast, for almost 40 minutes.
Yes, there were moments when someone's lines deserted them. The singing wasn't without some collective drifting off-key, and one of the three kings gave a long yawn and removed his hat, near the end, before replacing it back to front. So what, Bob?
Anyone who has tried to outwit a five year old will have also experienced that wilting feeling, as some piece of silliness is dissected, examined and neutralised with a logical one-liner. When I downloaded some photographs from Speckly Woo's camera, recently, I began to wonder if there might be a connection between the order she's currently drawn to through the viewfinder, and the analytical processes that help her to see her world so clearly.
Kids seem instinctively drawn to the weird and wonderful. So, perhaps the designers of the nursery rhyme characters we discovered in the 'Magic Forest' recognised an opportunity to test the boundaries.
What's the betting that Johnnie's new master will be straight out of a John Wyndham novel?
Tragically, Humpty's looks suffered after all the King's horses and all the King's men were ordered to go work on an egg.
If only the maid had been in the garden, hanging out the clothes, she may never have been disfigured in a preemptive blackbird strike within the close confines of the kitchen.
Speckly Woo was five on Saturday and, faced with the choice of a traditional party or a day out that included dinosaurs, a winter wonderland and Peppa Pig World, she asked that we all wrap up warm and head for the theme park just a few miles away.
This is a sample of what we saw...
...you can guess what's coming next.
Told you so.
We all got to meet the main man after this and, take it from me, neither SW or her sisters indicated that they had seen any similarities between me and Santa. Of course, I keep my beard closely trimmed.
Outside, PP, herself was popping up...
...all over the place.
After about five hours, it was back to SW's for dinner, jelly and ice-cream, and birthday cake. Lemonade for the girls and Winter Pimms for the frost-bitten grown-ups. I'm sure Peppa would have approved.
For the past few weeks an owl has taken to hooting, in the trees behind us, at around 05.00. The calls are returned as a weak echo, from a distant wooded area, beyond the village green. This exchange has been known to continue way into our second cup of tea.
Stay with me, as there's a theme to this post, but we have to consider a character from 'The Gruffalo' en route. I've become familiar with the owl in the story, along with the other creatures - who wouldn't, after repeated viewings - and, I've learnt something else. Whilst one of our twin granddaughters is content to see herself as a little mouse, the other is a more fascinated with the role of the owl. Let's hope this isn't sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.
And then, there's this little creation. Okay, I've added a few stars, a moon and a tree, but the owl is the product of our daughter's five year old imagination. It had gone to roost between the pages of a 'schooldays treasure album' more than a quarter of a century ago, and has only emerged quite recently. So, who gives a hoot? Well, I do, of course.
As is often customary on landmark occasions, one or two thank-you's are in order. So, I'd like to begin by thanking Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen for dreaming up this wonderful idea of a place where living memories, carefully researched family histories, and speculative tracings that reach into the past, meet on a weekly basis. I've learnt so much from the stories of other contributors, worldwide, and enjoyed a privileged peep into treasured family albums and collections. Long may it continue.
Okay, now down to business.
For the second week in a row, I make no apology for re-posting. This slightly edited item first saw the light of day in January, 2010, and as Sepia Saturday reaches its first century, it seems perfectly appropriate to write about the very first centenarian I ever knew.
William Clark, or ‘Pop Clark’ as he was known to neighbours, Spent more
than fifty years on sailing ships, having left home at 12 years of age
to work on a Thames sailing barge.
graduated to seven week fishing trips on the North Sea and was sailing
round Cape Horn when Queen Victoria was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee.
youngsters, we would sit with mouths gaping wider and wider as he told
tales of life under sail and towering seas that threatened to swallow
the ship and all hands alike.
He captained a sailing ship for eleven years and took part in several transatlantic races.
remember him walking up and down the length of his garden to ease his
arthritis. For years, the doctors had been telling him his walking days
were numbered. In the event, he was still managing the two mile round
trip, with the aid of a stick, to tend the grave of his late wife, even
after he had reached 100.
I have an abiding memory of
him walking to his woodshed in the summer. The sun hat perched lightly
on his head was always partially obscured by clouds of smoke from his
charred pipe. His objective, to saw logs for the coming winter. He was
ever the optimist, and eventually passed away aged 106. The pipe smoking
stopped a couple of years beforehand though, as the medics considered
it might damage his health.
I've shown this photograph before, but I make no apologies for posting it one more time. It was taken, back in the day, as they say, and like much of what occurs during rites of passage, it all seems so unreal now. Then, all things were possible. Grab your guitar and play the world. The working days may have been mundane, but they were little more than tolerable pops and crackles on the vinyl of our dreams.
Endless hours of toughening up our fingertips, ignoring the time, leaving the doors to our minds on the latch, and laying a 'welcome' mat outside for ideas that turned up, unannounced. We were always home to inspiration.
I posted this poem in January of this year. I think it goes some way towards explaining what occasionally drives young men to frame their feelings in little more than three chords.
While the grown-ups wring their hands over pensions they may never get, lose sleep in the Eurozone, and talk as though lives depend on who gets voted off 'Strictly Come Dancing', trust the children to be asking the sensible questions.
Yesterday, about mid-way between her home and ours:
Speckly Woo - "What did the first lady, ever, in the land, do?"
Mum - "How do you mean, 'do'?"
Speckly Woo - "What job did she do?"
Mum - "Oh…um, right. What job…well, she…I mean, perhaps…
When I started this blog, the intention was to focus on my thoughts and observations from a Grandfather's perspective, and I hope I've managed that to some degree.
However much I may digress from my original plan, posting about all and sundry, these three darling girls are, with the rest of my closest family, at the centre of my life.
You may think it odd that I've chosen photographs that don't reveal the girl's faces. It's just me, being over-protective. Nonetheless, from standing just behind them, you can share in the world they see stretching out before them.
Arthur and George were twins. They were called up to fight in 1939, aged just 19. They trained together and, for the most part, fought together in Italy and North Africa.
Arthur was my late stepfather. He passed away in December, 2009, aged 89. His war experiences never left him and, in his final months, the most poignant episodes were recalled again and again. He had been left puzzles to solve in his own mind, puzzles that had no clear answers.
We know about the special relationship that can exist between twins. Two of our own grandchildren share such a bond. And there's a particular wartime story about Arthur and George that I'll always remember. They had been involved in heavy fighting, at close quarters. As the odds turned against them, the order was given to fall back. Enemy fire rained down, and Arthur threw himself into a hole in the ground. He stayed there, waist-deep in water. Any attempt to haul himself out and make it back to his unit, would have attracted unwanted attention from the other side. In fact, the Germans were so close, just beyond a low ridge, that Arthur could hear them talking and slapping their sides in the cold early mornings.
Who else, other than George, would have crawled on his belly to get cold rations and water to his isolated brother? Time after time, he did so, under cover of darkness.
Everyone has stayed too long in the bath at some time. The crinkly skin is the tell-tale sign. Imagine how we'd look after several days too long in the water. Arthur was hospitalised after his eventual rescue.
As kids, we gently ribbed him about how smooth his legs were. We had no idea then and, in truth, we still have no idea today.
This week I was determined to stay on theme, but in the event, this was as close as I could get.
The grass is not an ideal playing surface for polo and, judging by the laundry, resembling the aftermath of a bodiless lynching, I don't think our neighbours counted a glamour puss in their number.
So it's just little me, astride my first two-wheeler, safe within the confines of an allotted plot, fenced with hazel hurdles presumably made by my grandfather. Out of view, is the caravan I shared with my parents. I have vague recollections of it, but in the absence of a photograph, you can assume it looked similar to the one in the background - behind the laundry.
This was stop-gap accommodation for us. The post-war programme for the building of council homes must have started in the large towns and cities and spread outwards, eventually reaching the fringes of rural England sometime in the early to mid 50s. We didn't know it when this picture was taken, but such a home had our name on it, and that was still at the planning stage.
As I've suggested, this 'toddling' period of my life is not easy to recall. There is one memorable occasion however, when I was introduced to a refrigerator by a lady who lived in a house/bungalow of bricks and mortar, next to or nearby the caravan site. On a warm and muggy day, she offered me something sweet tasting, chilled or frozen, from what I regarded to be an ordinary cupboard, weakly lit from the inside. The precise item is lost to time, but that chilly surprise remains to this day.
Looking closely at my chubby face, you can probably detect a degree of apprehension in my expression. Not too surprising, cameras can have that effect on little ones. For me, it's more poignant. A snap of registered uncertainty. A small boy wondering, but not beyond the event. His life compiled of brief and, largely forgettable, episodes, yet learning how to keep his balance on the fringes of events that would turn his world upside down, when the stabilisers would come off for good.
I've been a minority male in our family long enough to know that a girl isn't dressed if she doesn't have a bag in hand or over the shoulder. Though, I doubt I'll ever live long enough to grasp the complexities relating to the list of objects, carried in a girl's bag.
Our granddaughters have started early. Nan's handbag has always been a target for their little hands. Now, they have made their own, from used Jiffy bags, pieces of string, and a customised front panel, hand decorated with their own design.
The crossover between dimensions can get pretty blurred when you're a grandparent to two year old identical twins. This afternoon, I was invited to follow our dynamic duo in a circuitous route around their house. I call it their house, because even though their parents pay the mortgage, the girls, along with their big sister, Speckly Woo, have staked an undeniable claim to the place. Every room displays evidence of their systematic and bloodless coup. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the circuitous route. Lounge to dining room to kitchen and lounge again, and each time I was handed a new toy to carry. In the end, I felt like one of those poor kids who made a hash of Crackerjack's 'Double or Drop'.
As if to emphasise who's calling the shots, they've recently taken to marching, just short of the goose-step, and shouting their intentions at a volume that would make any RSM call for mummy, between tearful sobs.
But I'm left wondering, if I find things becoming a bit blurry, how easy is it to maintain control whilst wearing a bucket on your head?
In my last Sepia Saturday post, I spoke of life's 'markers', and used a photograph to illustrate my point. Of course, the pictures we hold dear are markers in themselves. Why else would we keep albums?
This happy shot of my maternal grandparents is extra special to me. Whenever I think of them, this how I see them dressed, in my mind's eye. The setting here, is the same as last week's, at the 'The Laurels', and you can see the 'lightning tree' just over my grandmother's left shoulder.
I suspect they're sharing a silly moment in front of the camera. My grandfather had quite a repertoire of corny jokes and funny voices.
The dahlias are just a small swatch of colour that swept through their garden, almost an acre in size. The place was crammed with fruit, vegetables and flowers, which my grandmother was passionate about.
More often than not, when he was saying his goodbyes, my grandfather would end with a cheery, "Happy days!"
One of the great obstacles to true aesthetic pleasure can be the label, or worse, the explanation. I'm sure we've all encountered at least one work of art that could have held its own perfectly well without any kind of commentary.
It's one of the curses of adulthood, that we feel obliged to explain our every action, and come up with answers designed to impress, rather than inform. Living in the age of the constant rehearsal, we often settle for losing the 'moment' rather than face the humiliation of failing to communicate a concept correctly.
'Get it right, first time, and leave no room for ambiguity', a rule that young children rarely have difficulty following.
I would never underestimate the importance of life's 'markers', the intimate relationships we have with items that help us to keep our place in a particular time.
This photograph, taken at 'The Laurels', home of my maternal grandparents, is packed with them.
The tree in the background, killed by lightning and somehow striking back, grey against the blue sky, with it's bare and brittle branches. An ancient apple tree that produced sweet red fruit, tailored perfectly for a small boy's hand. A water butt where I observed tiny life forms performing in summer's heat, and from where my grandfather released a wheel of ice near the end of the Big Freeze in 1963.
A conservatory (built for £92-15s-9d) heavy with geraniums and waiting for morning glory. Two pale green doors. One, leading to a pre-flush toilet, the other, opening into the sweetest of kitchens where grandmother grew her rice puddings and apple sponges alongside the chicken's 'mash'.
Finally, two kitchen chairs, painted bright blue in a moment of modern madness, and a rickety folding wooden table. This is where we sat, mid-afternoon, with cups of tea circling a beleaguered biscuit barrel. Royal Scot, Princess, and Lincoln biscuits, dunked in sunshine and eagerly consumed.
In this picture, it looks as though the breeze was getting up. You can see various papers weighed down with unidentifiable objects. Seems that my grandmother was one for not losing her place, too.
After seeing the horrendous news footage from the Abu Salim hospital in Tripoli, I was reminded that my late step-father spent time in the region during WW2. His experiences affected him until the very end of his 89 years. I never heard him brag about his exploits, nor did he glorify war. Rather, he was irreparably damaged by the human cost of conflict. So, although his accounts could sometimes be funny, more often that not, they were heart-rending.
He told of his time in Tobruk, shortly after the Allies had retaken it in November, 1942. "I buried a young officer," he said, "I'll always remember, his hands were soft and small, like a woman's." Arthur was only 22, but war made certain he was seeing life from a point, way beyond his years.
The images I see today, horrify me, but I'm not actually there. I am only qualified to give a distant reaction. I've never been called up to fight for my country, and although it's been said many times by men of my generation, it's worth repeating, we owe a huge debt to the likes of Arthur. He was at the sharp end. All I can do is write a poem. You can read it at Poetry24.
I've been feeling uncharacteristically 'down', these past couple of days and at first, I wasn't able to put my finger on the problem. A nagging sense of loss, like an exaggeration of that feeling you get when you know you've left the house without all that you need.
Yule Cottage, the place of my birth.
On rare occasions like this I tend to seek refuge in the shelter of better days, where I carefully count my treasured memories and check them for signs of wear. Yesterday, it was becoming clear to me that I was drifting unpleasantly on a sea of nostalgia. No mal de mer for me, but I was nursing a spot of homesickness. A mild pining for the place of my birth. There had been no obvious trigger, I just needed to revisit a simple, settled and secure marker in a terrain that's been shaped by a flood of unpredictability.
It doesn't take long to cover the twenty or so miles that lay between me and the village where I first drew breath. Years ago, I unconsciously planted my flags of reminder. They still fluttered in the lanes and cast shadows on the flint. And, as I passed familiar cottages, sympathetic new-builds, all the way to the Church of the Blessed Mary and beyond the overgrown coppice my grandfather worked, the proverbial weight of uncertainty began to lift. This section of my past was still here...and somehow, I knew it wouldn't let me down.
Regular visitors will know that I have often waxed lyrical about Cornwall, and how it still remains very special to me. But I think what I'm beginning to realise is, there can be only one true place where my body and soul feel perfectly at ease. It's a force of attraction that's impossible for me to deny, an invisible, unbreakable tie that holds me fast as the world changes around and about. It may not be where I live, but it's home all the same.
Yesterday we had a lovely picnic lunch with our daughter and our grandchildren, at Danebury. It was one of those relaxed family outings. Food and drink in the sunshine, slow steps into the afternoon and lungfuls of fresh air.
The countryside slides away from the Iron Age hill fort on all sides, and it really does feel as though the world is at your feet. Perhaps, because of the elevation, the mind is apt to turn a bit philosophical. As when looking up at the night sky, the realisation comes with ringing clarity, that we are rather minute in the scheme of things. So it didn't come as any great surprise when our daughter mentioned something she'd heard recently, about life plans. Straight away, I'm thinking, how on earth does anyone even begin to plan their life?
I mean, at what point does a life plan begin? Is it something your parents draft up and present you with when you come of age? Is it something you do after dragging yourself from the depths of despair?
Answers on a very large postcard, please.
Young Mags, with no particular plan in mind
Today, we're all going to Dorset, as part of Mags' birthday celebrations. I suppose, statistically, life becomes a little more predictable for life planners over a certain age, but whenever I'm in the company of our grandchildren, I'm reminded of how sweet life can be, without thinking too far ahead.
I'm grateful to Tony for introducing me to this beautiful cover of Buddy Holly's 'Words of Love', sung by Patti Smith. This one's for you Mags. Happy Birthday!
There are seafarers in my blood, but so diluted with time, I can barely taste the salt.
Benjamin, buried in All Saints Churchyard, St Thomas, West Indies. Swallowed in a sickly squall of yellow fever, aged 28. His son John, Master of pilot's cutters, 'Deerhound' and 'Jessica'. Quoted as being "a sailor-man of the W.W.Jacobs type." "…affectionately known in port circles as ‘Old Jack…"
Do these characters hold the key to my affinity with the sea? From the shoreline, my eyes are set on the two blues of their horizon. My ears strain for a whisper of a tall tale, from somewhere beneath the shrieking of gulls.
Me and the Sea
(from 28th March, 2010 - above photograph, layers of Cornwall 2009, and Hayling Island 1950s)
For all the hours, my wide eyes scanned
The unfamiliar streets and signs
That led the way to what you’d planned
Against my huffs and puffs and whines.
Until, in time, a swollen blue
That grew with each new sweeping bend
And, colour-washed in summer hue,
A day I could not bear to end.
For all the sweet salt, glint and foam,
The well-worked spade and painted pail,
I rested all my thoughts of home
And felt my racing heart set sail.