The Grump

I saw the grump today,
caught a glimpse
in a trice, the faintest shadow
of his former self.
Rumbled, he was undone
and disappeared.

Harmony reigned.

Featured image is of Victor Meldrew, I Don’t Believe It.

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Uncle Will

“‘He that followeth me walketh not in darkness,’ said our Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are taught how we must imitate his life and virtues if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from all blindness of heart. Let us make it, then, our constant practice to meditate upon the life of Christ.”

I just came across a tiny (just over 4inx2.5in) copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and those words form the very first paragraph. The book came from the residual estate of Uncle Will some years ago (not really my uncle, but that’s another story). Of course, this is a famous book in Christian circles, and I even have a paperback copy on my bookshelves, untouched for many years.

The thing about Uncle Will was that he was an essentially good man – very devout and proper, but always cheery and often exhibiting an impish sense of humour. Some found him ‘churchy’ and pompous, but the more I got to know him the more I understood that foundational goodness, a positive example to us all.

On reading that first paragraph of the book, I was suddenly struck that this was literally what Will had tried to do throughout his life – to follow the example of Christ – and with much success. Thomas à Kempis was one of his guides along the way.

Not so many people are drawn by such devout Christianity these days, but it is clear that its fruits can be rich indeed. I recall Will with great affection.

Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

1280px-Another_Milky_Way_Shot
The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons

The foraging blackbird

It’s been a hot day, I need exercise in the cool of the evening. I go for a brisk walk. At length, I find myself walking quickly, mind engaged on some problem or other, unaware of the surroundings.

With that awareness I step back, internally rather than literally. I become engaged with the world around. Trees become alive. My walk has a smoother quality, a bit slower, somehow deeper. Birds are singing their evensong. A breeze arises and then falls away. A blackbird forages close by in the hedge. The full moon is full of meaning as it skates between the branches and hides behind buildings, to reappear in the gaps.

I interpret this as the difference between living in the world and living in the mind’s abstractions, living with the whole brain-body, not just the left brain.

Featured image of blackbird by Stulli, via Wikemedia Commons

Mrs Cotton

I heard that Mrs Cotton died recently, aged 95. The Cottons were our next-door neighbours in 1950s Lincoln, ordinary people getting on with their lives, friendly enough but not intruding, helping out when help was needed, co-operating when necessary. Reliable.

Mrs Cotton had her mother living with them in the house, until she died. After Mr C died, she lived out the rest of her life in the same house. As you do, if there’s no reason to move.

Reminds me of the guy who served me a pizza in a Lincoln takeaway in the early nineties. He’d lived in Lincoln all his life and said he’d never been out of the city, not even once.

I was perhaps lucky that education gave me the route to escape! But maybe I should stress that the Lincoln of today is no longer so enclosed and provincial, now that it is a thriving university town.

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Mrs Watty

Mrs Watty lived two doors away from us in 1950s Lincoln. She was pretty well off compared to the rest of the street, having a car long before anyone else and having people in to do things for her.

We had but a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Watty until I was an early teenager. She never seemed to go out of the house, other than in the car. Her age I know not; I just saw her as ‘old’.

Presumably Mrs Watty found out that I played chess at school, and she let it be known that she would like to learn to play chess. Thus it was that I embarked on a very brief career as a chess coach and went round to see her, along with my chess set.Read More »

Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.

 

Auntie Edie

It is the early-to-mid 1950s, I’m around 8 years old. We arrive by train from Lincoln at the old Manchester Exchange Station. Uncle Wilfred meets us; we transfer ourselves into a taxi, cases affixed to the side, and set off. At the first corner the cases take on a life of their own, leave the taxi and slide across the road. After a brief panic, cases are soon retrieved and re-affixed. Wilfred chuckles, my father says ‘crikey’. Wilfred was always chuckling, could always see the funny side of things. My brother and I rather liked him.Read More »

Auntie Lillie

auntie lillieAuntie Lillie (or was it Aunty Lily) has been (internally) pestering me to be aired on this blog for some time, as part of the series of recollections of being brought up in Lincoln in the 1950s. Lillie usually turned up at our house about once a year, for a pleasant chat and a cup of tea. People did that then to keep in touch, otherwise it was just letters. She was my mother’s aunt, really, grandad’s (and Ive‘s) sister.

Lillie’s face had not been treated kindly by the ravages of time in her later years, having various extrusions and blemishes, which of course fascinated us young boys, though they could not be spoken of.

She lived mysteriously in a place called Rothwell, and was clearly not married. I later realised that she was probably ‘in service’, which I think was common in the previous generation, but was becoming much less common in hers. She probably did not have an easy life, but always seemed cheery , as indeed she looks in the photo, from the mid/late 1930s.

Uncle Ive

Ivor was my mother’s father’s brother. Everyone called him Ive. I remember Ive being small and thin, with a half-empty pint of beer on the table in front of him. We mostly saw him and his wife Clara on family occasions when beer was involved.

Clara was, by contrast, large and fat. She drank stout. Ive and Clara were the living image of all those fat lady/ thin man picture postcards you saw on trips to the seaside. (What was so amusing about the image of a fat lady?)

We only saw them on family occasions, but heard their names frequently. I think they were weekly members of the Saturday night out at the pub – out in the countryside at nearby Auburn, with my grandad, his second wife and the one of my parents who wasn’t babysitting.

In the 1950s there was no problem in going to the pub in the countryside, having a few pints and coming back slightly merry. This was even true when I first started driving in the 1960s. Breathalyzers were first introduced in the UK in 1967.

Featured image is of the present-day Royal Oak in Auburn.

Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank was actually my mother’s cousin, but older. His father was a brother of mother’s mother. The father was killed in WW1, and Frank grew up with my mother for a while. Despite this they were not close.

Frank had married Ivy and they lived by ‘The Ramper’**, the main A46 road between Lincoln and North Hykeham. We occasionally visited them. On one memorable occasion in the late 1940s/ early 1950s, we saw a television for the first time, in their house, after walking there across fields. It was one of those huge polished wooden boxes with a tiny 8 inch screen in the middle and a very speckly picture. It was quite impressive nonetheless. We only got our first television in 1953, in time for the coronation.

Ivy had somehow become Muriel, and seemed to have developed ‘airs and graces’, according to mother – who was not impressed by our being given tinned tomatoes on toast for tea. We did not see much of them.

**  The Newark Road was the old Roman road and was called the Ramper by my grandparents. I think this relates to this being an old Roman road, and the association of their roads with ramparts.

Featured image of an early television set, the RCA 630TS (1948) by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, via Wikimedia Commons

Uncle Arthur

Uncle Arthur was actually my mother’s uncle. My strongest memory of him is on Lincoln High Street outside the Saracen’s Head Hotel, just near the Stonebow, the stone gateway spanning the High Street. It was the mid-to-late 1950s. Arthur was chasing after his hat. My father, brother and I were in stitches, so failed to help.Read More »

Uncle Budge

We did not see Aunt Helen very often while I was growing up in 1950s Lincoln. Actually she was my mother’s aunt. Budge was her husband.

Although living in a terraced house near Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank football ground, Helen was ‘posh’, their child was a choirboy at the cathedral. It almost felt like visiting royalty. Budge was in contrast large, cheery, hearty, funny, apparently a normal working man.

I particularly recall visiting on a Friday – fish day. Budge always had fish on a Friday – I remember a large piece on his plate, maybe skate, which he soon demolished. A big thing was made about Budge always having fish on a Friday.

The rest of us, including Helen, just had an ordinary ‘tea’ – maybe potted meat sandwiches, cake if we were lucky, and a cup of tea.

This seemed odd to us, as we always ate the same stuff together as a family. I think we were seeing the vestiges of times when (a) men regarded themselves as special (b) there was hardly enough food to go around and (c) the working man’s life was physically hard so he needed extra food.

We were lucky!

Featured image of skate by Titus Tscharntke, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul turned up at our house on his battered old pushbike once a year in the 1950s. After a cheery hello to us kids, he’d have a cup of tea, maybe a piece of cake, and a chat with my dad.

Then the old bags hanging on his handlebars would be filled with apples from our trees, eaters and cookers – it was always that time of year.

Totally laden, Uncle Paul would set off ever so slowly, a bit wobbly at first, and gradually disappear off down the road.

Uncle Paul was a distant relative of my dad and, I think, lived out in the sticks of the Lincolnshire countryside. We were townies, on the edge of Lincoln. But this gave us a glimpse of life in rural Lincolnshire then – sharing natures bounty where possible, travelling everywhere by bike.

Next year Uncle Paul would be back again to repeat the ritual.

Featured image is not Uncle Paul but about the right age
– old man by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Wikimedia Commons

Nicky

“The doctors says he’s a mongol.”

I vividly recall the words of my dad in the hall of our house that day in Lincoln in 1960, the shock, although I hardly understood the term.

“They could be wrong, couldn’t they?”

I hadn’t the heart to say what I felt – it was unlikely they were wrong, and they weren’t.

So Nicky grew up with what soon became known as Down’s Syndrome, a fairly common chromosome deficiency.

I soon went to university and Nicky grew up and lived most of his adult years with mum and dad. I have the impression he was not very advanced compared to some with Down’s, who have quite a reasonable IQ. He was always academically very limited , with limited language. But he had a big heart, and the whole family grew to love him – he was an important part of us.

I say ‘was’ because he died yesterday, soon after we all enjoyed his 56th birthday – apparently a fairly typical life span. Not unexpected as he’d developed Alzheimer’s.

He gave us all a lot… playing ball, walking, games, a great love of music, dance, slapstick comedy… Always first on and last off the disco floor! And wasn’t it hilarious when something went wrong!

We’ll miss you, Nicky.

Uncle Wag

My mother used to talk about when a distant relative Uncle Wag came to stay during the war (WW2 for her generation). She didn’t talk about the war much, but then Lincoln was itself not hugely affected, receiving just the odd few bombs.

Wag came for a few weeks, I think probably as respite from the blitz in London. He used to sit in the living room smoking his pipe.

The big thing about Uncle Wag was that he was delighted to be able to smoke his pipe in the house. At home in London, he had to smoke outside. If his wife found him smoking inside she would throw the pipe out of the window!

Most people smoked pipes or cigarettes then, but not my mother. The health hazards were unknown or kept quiet. I wonder what the equivalent might be today – I suspect it’s those dreaded pesticides that are sprayed on all our food crops, but I could be proved wrong. They seem to be doing a good job of killing off bees.

The picture is not Uncle Wag, but Bing Crosby,
taken at around that period by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
via Wikimedia Commons

At the races

While Serena Williams was winning Wimbledon for the nth time, daughter and I were strolling through Chester. It happened to be race day. We arrived on the road by the race course and leaned against a convenient wall with a good view of the course at 2.45.

The rows of bookies’ boards showed the next race to be in twenty minutes, so we waited and took in the jolly scene. Drinking, eating junk food and chatting seemed to be the main occupations. Men wore suits, some in groups where drinking a pint of beer down in one seemed a popular activity. Some of the younger women wore skimpy attire that appeared rather inappropriate, given both the cool wind and the inelegance of the parts uncovered. This was no Ascot.

There was a certain fascination in observing the changing odds on the bookies’ boards. Eventually we placed notional bets and awaited the race. Number 6 ‘Sovereign’ seemed a good choice given the Brexit situation.

The race started somewhere invisible to us, and eventually the horses appeared in the distance at the far side of the circular course. They gradually came round the bend and then suddenly they were upon us, all effort and straining, pounding of hooves, excitement in the crowd. Yes, it was exciting! Number 6 was there in the mêlée, around fourth and seemed to be gaining.

After that ten seconds of excitement, it was suddenly all over. From our angle we couldn’t see who had won. It turned out that ‘Sovereign Debt’ came in second – the bookies’ boards had not been not wide enough for the full name. All that waiting for ten seconds of excitement!

But maybe better than my first racing experience, 52 years ago in 1964. The last ‘Lincolnshire Handicap’ was being run in Lincoln (after that it moved to Doncaster). This provided a good excuse to go to my first horse races. I wandered through the crowds soaking the slightly seedy atmosphere, had a drink and a sausage roll, placed a bet based on a ‘tip’ someone had given me – ‘Linca’ seemed appropriate. I waited around the crowded finish line, saw nothing of the race except the last second or two as a great pounding of hooves was followed by a load of horses suddenly flashing by. Who on earth had won? Well it wasn’t Linca! Arriving home I was dog sick from the sausage roll, and vowed never to go racing again.

I guess the point is showing off, drinking and gambling – and that ten seconds of excitement!

The higher they fly…

In my days of working in IT at a big international company, I eventually rose to a moderate level in the hierarchy – such that I was once even given the title of vice-president of something or other, to impress some Americans. One thing I did observe during those years was that, in general, the higher level managers were more unpleasant and lacking in empathy than people lower down the scale – not an invariant rule, as there was indeed the odd relatively human high level manager (yes, I probably mean you, if you’re reading this). Also, it was often the more unpleasant and pushy characters who got promoted more quickly.

I was therefore not surprised to read Oliver Burkeman’s review of Dacher Keltner’s book The Power Paradox: How We gain and Lose Influence in Saturday’s Guardian Review. Read More »