From time to time I post here what I consider some of the more entertaining tales by which my family commemorate our quirkier ancestors. I’ve grown a little wary of doing this, since some of the comments I’ve received make it pretty clear that the authenticity of these stories is a matter of some doubt, that the tales are sometimes thought to be faked for the viewing audience.
Not so. If I had the strength or the moral fibre I would protest – I might even expostulate, if I knew how. If I had the imagination to invent this stuff I would be quietly pleased. This does not preclude the simple possibility that a bunch of lies has been handed down the family over the years, of course, but, though the tales may have been polished in the retelling, I believe they are substantially correct. Anyway, here’s another one…
Now then. Let’s go back just a little. Great Grandfather George was my father’s father’s father (which is a straightforward idea, if tricky to say), and he was a moderately wealthy market gardener (vegetable farmer) near the small town of Rainhill, in Lancashire. He was a tenant farmer, and his business was run very efficiently by his wife Ellen, who was not a local woman – she came from somewhere further south – possibly Gloucestershire, as I recall.
The big problem was George’s thirst. Things got to a point where he would set off with his horse and cart all loaded up, on a Saturday morning, to take the produce to Warrington Market, and the horse would bring him back on Sunday, drunk and penniless. Every rum-pot in Warrington knew where to cadge a drink if George was in town. He was a celebrity, of a sort.
|Brickmaker's Arms public house, Warrington, c1900|
|Warrington workhouse - old George is in an unmarked grave somewhere here|
|A Liverpool milk-float - not Ellen's - the Anfield Dairy looks rather up-market|
|Toxteth - c1900 - not very rural - this is Wilson Street, at the Dingle|
|...and here is a supper bar in St James St|
|More like the thing - Willaston Village, Wirral, around the|
same date - Jim had a smallholding at Nine Acres, not far from here
Jim knew for certain that any stranger who came near his farm was up to no good. One weekend he intercepted the collective gentry of the local hunt (yoicks!), who were crossing his land, and told them that if he saw them again he would shoot them. They dismissed him airily, as you would expect, and two weeks later he fired a shotgun during a hunt, allegedly at them, and was arrested. He spent a little while in prison, and then some time in a mental institution.
When I knew him he was over 80, I guess, and I was a very small child – if I had started school then I had only just started. Jim was long retired - he gave up the farming, basically because he was always too lazy to make any money. He then lived in a council flat at Knotty Ash, Liverpool, which was many miles from our house, yet for a while he regularly visited us around teatime on a Saturday – my dad used to buy fish and chips for our weekend treat on Saturdays, and Jim was more than happy to drop in, unannounced, and share. He always claimed that he had just been passing, but a journey from Knotty Ash on the tram was a lengthy undertaking, requiring much planning. He used to come via the Saturday market in Garston, where he used to purchase crazy gifts for me – once a plaster figurine of an Alsatian dog, daubed with gold paint, often a bundle of pencils which only had about an inch of lead in each end, and once a framed picture of the Pope (cut from a magazine) – interesting in their way, I suppose, but each of them a poor swap for a decent plate of fish and chips.
Jim and Ike both had telephones installed in their homes – neither had many friends, and they kept in constant touch by means of this new technological wonder. I was once in my granddad’s house when he was on the phone to his brother, and I remember that they both shouted so loud that I thought they could simply have opened the window and communicated without involving the telephone service. Like a lot of retired men of their era and their background, they sort of lost their way a bit, having no useful role in the community. Ike was desperate to fix stuff, to repair things, to be useful and respected.
He repaired a handbag of my mother’s, and it was about twice as heavy after he had fixed it, the new leather patches contrasted strangely with the original material, and it would not open properly. It went in the bin.
He agreed to fix Jim’s alarm clock, which had stopped working. After he had got it working, he quizzed Jim on why it had been so rusty – he had had to strip down and hand-polish all the internals with oil and carborundum paper – a lengthy job. When Jim explained that it had fallen in his chamber pot one night, Ike said he was a dirty bugger, and they didn’t speak to each other for some weeks.
Ike’s worst ever repair job was when my Auntie May brought back a delicate silver bracelet from Spain – from the first foreign holiday any of that family ever went on (if you ignore Uncle Les’s time in Tunisia and Italy in WW2). He thought it looked disappointingly flimsy, and offered to improve it for her – this involved very large blobs of extra solder at every joint, and Auntie May was heartbroken, though it was definitely stronger – Ike was getting a bit past it by then, if that is an admissible defence…
Jim lived on his own in his flat in Knotty Ash, and he got very frail and very dotty. He still insisted on riding his bicycle, to everyone’s despair, in spite of frequent blackouts. On one occasion a motorist found him lying in the road, helped him up and stood him up in a shop doorway to see if he was all right – Jim punched him because he felt that the motorist must have knocked him off his bike. I believe that may have been the end of Jim’s cycling.
For a while my father used occasionally to travel on his Lambretta scooter (125cc) to visit Jim, to see how he was getting on, and invariably found him to be cheerful, full of energy and completely bats.
making a fried breakfast one Sunday when my dad arrived, and Jim invited him to
share it, though there were no plates – the idea was they would both eat from
the frying pan, since this saved on the washing up. Needless to add, the frying
pan was never washed either. He also offered my dad some homemade bread to go
with it – he said that he had become very keen on baking, which he thought was
doubly useful since it kept his fingernails clean. My dad declined this
splendid offer. Uncle Jim asked my dad (who was, like his father, an electrical
man) to have a look at his radio, which hadn’t worked for a while. Apparently
it was a real museum piece – Jim hugged it and pressed his ear to the silent
speaker – he said that he was sure there was still life in it (actually, he
referred to it as “him”), and that he had heard “him” speaking sometimes when
he was in the other room. My dad swore that Jim had a length of wire from the
EARTH (ground) terminal on the radio chassis, and the other end was in a
plant-pot full of soil from his yard – I’ve never been sure about this – it
sounds too much like an Irish gag.
|Lambretta 125, just like my dad's - that pillion seat was not|
recommended for long distances - I still walk with a limp
Ike had a severe stroke when he was about 75, and died within a couple of days, but he died secure in the proud knowledge that he was something of a local rarity, since he owned his own house (he had bought it with the £500 he inherited from the sale of his mother’s dairy), and that he owned the first TV set in his street; they had bought it so the neighbours could watch the (1953) Coronation on it. Since he already had a telephone that he overcharged the neighbours to use, this was the ultimate in Beating the Joneses. My granddad was quite big-time – as a foreman in the electrical workshop, almost unbelievable nowadays, he used to wear a waistcoat and a bowler hat. My lasting childhood memory of him is sitting in his armchair, resplendent in waistcoat and silver watchchain (which I have somewhere), with the cufflinks and detachable starched collar removed from his work shirt, slurping a cup of tea.
Jim was well into his eighties when he died – his end was unfortunate, solitary, and in some ways had a lot in common with his life. He was boiling eggs on his gas stove in his little flat when he seems to have had some kind of dizzy turn. The coroner’s inquest reckoned that the pan of water boiled over, extinguishing the gas flame, and Jim was gassed while he was unconscious.
That’s enough about that lot. I also might add, in passing, that I have a relative from a different branch of the family, who was gaoled in the 1970s for spying for the Russians – this is absolutely true, by the way. I think I’m probably not allowed to say anything about this story, so I’ll leave it for the moment. Just saying.
Things could get worse.