Sunday, 22 November 2009

A Tangled Web

I think it's fair to say that my maternal grandmother was an eccentric. And although, as a family, we recognise that a pinch of eccentricity is 'in the genes', her sometimes unconventional approach and her unpredictable personality probably owed more to nurture than nature.

A bright child with a passion for learning, she would have fulfilled her potential at school but for the social hurdles of her time, too high to clear without serious money. Ability just wasn't enough.

Abandoned to the care of a grandmother she adored, she grew up on a ramshackle smallholding on the fringes of a large artificial lake. An idyllic scene perhaps, but she found little romance in fetching cows down through the woods for milking in all weathers, laying in bed with rats scurrying about in the roof above and living in fear of her grandfather's moods, that darkened after bouts of drinking. In fact, Wellington, or 'Duke', as he was known, wasn't her real grandfather. He just happened to marry Jinny, her grandmother, when she was already a single mother.

Duke and Jinny coming home from market

A liaison, in 1883, between Jinny and an unidentified aristocrat, left her holding a very real baby, in the shape of my great grandmother. Nothing unusual in that, of course. Guest of the family at the 'big house' has wicked way with lowly parlour maid. Maid is dismissed under a cloud of shame whilst the gentleman in question goes about his merry, procreative business.

Unusually, in Jinny's case, her former employers, for whatever reason, provided her with somewhere to live in addition to occasional, though meagre financial assistance.

Jinny feeding swans on the lake by her cottage

My grandmother knew the whole story, apart from the true identity of her real grandfather. She would recall how Jinny's funeral, in 1943, was attended by representatives of those who had 'looked after' her. She remembered, clearly, the expressions of relief on their faces when she assured them, that what had taken place all those years ago, was now over.  

In the course of researching our family history, I discovered that my great grandmother was in service in London around 1900. Coincidentally, the head of that house, had a place in the country adjoining the previously mentioned, 'big house', where in all probability she was conceived. These highly privileged neighbours were both senior officers in the same regiment of the British Army and prominent Freemasons. In fact, my great grandmother's employer was not only an English Mason, but a Knight Templar, Grand Inspector-General of the Ancient and Accepted (Scottish) Rite, a 9th degree member of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, and 2nd degree in the Order of Light (Fratres Lucis), an occult body founded in 1882. He was also a Justice of the Peace.

The mystery is always going to be there, but I'm sure that much of what occurred in her youth, made my grandmother the person she was. I think it would have been impossible to remain unaffected by the weighty intrigue generated by such enigmatic characters, their secret lives and arrangements.....don't you?

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Monday, 16 November 2009

Learning Curve

Some readers will remember this post from last November. However, with some added visual fare, I thought it worth re-posting for Sepia Saturday.

When I attended my first school, I wasn't summoned by bells, but by a series of sharp hand-claps that echoed about the yard like mousetraps being sprung in quick succession.

My first school - Bishops Waltham Infants.

Each morning, the same ritual, we all sloped off, to our learning, reluctant to give up the magic qualities of the outdoors.

In spite of its tall windows, the interior of the school was dark and shadowy. So it was in relatively poor visibility that Mrs Woods and Miss Windebanks pooled their efforts to teach us. Theirs was a world of basic arithmetic, heavily crayoned artwork and good manners.

Singing songs always provided a welcome interlude and carols rang around the classrooms at Christmas with great zest and little harmony. But it was the nursery rhymes that I liked. You know, those with the lifetime guarantee. Often, we would sing of things we could do on a cold and frosty morning. In turns, we all got to nominate an activity before singing a solo about it. Being a country boy, I once offered up the way I took 'pot shots' at wood pigeons on a cold and frosty morning. It was the truth, but I was punished for not choosing something more wholesome, like shoe cleaning.

First school photograph (even I can't believe this is me)

At playtime, what joy it was to get into the fresh air once more. Away from the after smell of school meals, chalk-dust and a classmate whose terror of the learning process drove him to incontinence.

Suddenly the world regained its colour. We were a squadron of fighter planes under the command of Graham Wyatt, the policeman's son. Taking off from beneath the heavy limbs of a great yew tree, our arms outstretched and ready for combat. We weaved and dodged, looped the loop with blood curdling cries and crashed with alarming regularity, only to rebuild seconds later for another sortie. Our cannon fire was inexhaustible and deafening.

We watched, intently, when the doors to this undertaker's workshop were open. What were those men making, in amongst the clouds of flying saw dust? Big boxes, but for what?

I like to think that I was a reasonably brave lad then. I shrugged off cuts and grazes, and never even withered under the glare of Mrs Woods. But I did fear a visit to the outside lavatories; those wooden seated conveniences housed in ancient, creaking cubicles. In summer the fuming disinfectant was totally overpowering and cracking open the latched doors resulted in partial asphyxiation as the evil odours wafted up and smothered your face. Calls of nature were inevitably postponed.

In winter the story was equally harrowing. Crossing the yard through the elements, we endured the damp and icy winds that rattled the roofs of the outhouses. Those who had been brave enough to make the journey returned with blue legs and chattering teeth that only the glow of the coke stove could cure.

Gradually I gained valuable knowledge. I learned the art of cutting out. Indeed, I managed to cut every other square of an intricately patterned pullover my mother had knitted for me. I learned that the school dentist was a faceless gentleman, who sat with a blinding sun behind him while he probed about inside my mouth with painful metallic instruments. I learned that it was not prudent to put plasticine up my nose and that to ask a teacher to extract it was more painful than the dental examination. And I learned that to become infected with ringworm by a favourite puppy resulted in an instant loss of friends. So began my formal education.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Visiting Time

I know you're real, your skin to touch,
Enfolds the slow and sad surprise
Of words that will not sound as such,
From life behind closed eyes.

You cannot hide, I know you're there.
Hands, heart and face,
Are large as life, held in the chair,
That is your time and space.

I've come to see the you I know,
A glimpse, a sign, a trace
Of a life that's drifting to and fro
In some secret, distant place.

From where you are, can you recall
A snatch of memory or single clue
Of where we were before the fall,
When I was me and you were you?

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembering RIDGES, C.F., Driver, R.A.S.C

In 1912, Nellie and Charles took their vows. One year after the birth of their first daughter, Nellie and Charles said goodbye.

He volunteered in August 1914 and was immediately drafted to France, where he served on various sectors of the Front. He was present during heavy fighting on the Somme, when he sustained severe wounds, which necessitated the amputation of his right arm. He was invalided out in April 1917, and holds the 1914 Star, and the General Service and Victory Medals.
(National Roll Of The Great War)

As a small child, my mother-in-law, would cast her gaze back at the ghostly figure, gently waving to her from an upstairs window as she walked to Sunday School.

His mind and body damaged, Charles found employment in a brewery. There, he laboured, giving good service until, on 1st July 1926, death finally reached him from the fields of France and swept him away.

Nellie and Charles said goodbye.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Hair Today......

I never attended Sunday School as a boy. But at my Grandparent's house, 'The Laurels', I could witness a gathering of story-telling men whose expressive,  weather-beaten faces should have lit up some ancient illustration or other.

The Laurels

On the 'day of rest', Grandad took to wielding a comb, scissors and clippers instead of his billhook, axe and adze. Sunday mornings were for tidying the heads of farmers, dairymen, thatchers and labourers who came in dribs and drabs to a ramshackle shed, propped up by an aged apple tree and smothered in 'plums and custard' honeysuckle.

I'd sit on a broken bale of hay with one arm around the neck of a chocolate mongrel called Sally, whilst the clientele sat as squarely as was possible on a lop-sided kitchen chair.

In the summertime the men would be mere silhouettes against the bright morning, framed in the gaping doorway. Everything drifted; the smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes and pipes, the hair and the conversation. All fell softly and steadily.

In winter the door remained firmly shut to the elements. Grandad snipped away under the flickering illumination of a weak bulb and a woodchip burning stove offered a little warmth when the wind was in the right quarter.

When things became quiet, I contented myself by driving old nails into a log or maybe Grandad would seize the moment to sharpen hooks or shears. As showers of sparks rained down from his grindstone I'd be poised with my magnet, knowing I could make the filings dance and stand on end when the job was done.

No permanent damage done to my curly locks

Out of all the regulars I had my favourites; Bill Burrows, for instance. There was a big man with a beer-barrel body who, after succumbing to Grandad's scissors, would immediately try his great brown trilby on for size. After the usual, "That's a better fit, Jim'' he'd take out his snuff box. Where most men would merely take a pinch, Bill Burrows tipped a mole-hill of powder on to the back of his thick wrist and sniffed the entire lot up in one go. A minute or so later he'd sneeze into his red and white spotted handkerchief with the force of a hurricane. A broad smile followed, and with an expression of relief on his shining, red face, he'd sit astride his ancient creaking bicycle and wobble homeward.

Old Charlie Page, was a hard working farmer, but his overgrown white moustache and frail, steel-rimmed spectacles somehow made him seem more suited to the part of a telegraph operator in the wild west.

Echoes of Alf Churcher's squeaky laugh, and the grace of Fred Gray's laconic smile. These characters, all trussed up with sturdy braces and leather belts strong enough to hold a shire-horse, coloured my early years with their wonderful yarns.

What would they have made of today's barbers? Well perhaps an old farmer of the Carpenter family summed it up on the day when Charlie Randall brought his long haired, teenage son along for a trim. While Grandad stood looking bemused, having never been confronted with such a mop before, old man Carpenter removed his long dead and crusty pipe from between his lips, adjusted his battered hat and suggested quietly, "Bess thing t' do there Jim, is sling 'alf a gallon o' parfeen on, an' set light to it ."

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges