The Whooper Swans are back on the river; bull-finches, chaffinches and greenfinches have joined the tits and squirrels at the feeder; small groups of deer come most evenings for the pellets that we put out for them ... there is still some snow on the ground and the temperature is hovering around freezing-point, but spring is in the air!
ps - I wrote this post a week or so ago so now the snow has finally gone, as have the deer, and the squirrel is only an occasional visitor. The sound of snow-scooters has been replaced by that of chainsaws; the woods & fields are full of birdsong and the sent of freshly-cut pine ... spring really is here!
Man of Mystery – part 2
(if you are new to this topic, then you should really read part 1 first – it might be helpful…)
I think that the art of “knowing people” came in handy during the war. When WW2 broke out, the family ranged in age from Uncle Bill, 41, to Aunt Margaret, 19. None of them, not one of the eight healthy, robust, individuals, saw any war-time service. Not one of them ever showed a photograph of themselves in uniform. The nearest they came to that was a photograph of Jack, the husband of one of the sisters. He was in the tank corp, I think, and a photograph of him in uniform was shown sometimes – passed round like a holy relic as their collective contribution to the war effort.
My father was in “reserved occupation” and couldn’t be called up but heaven only knows what his brothers were doing. At some point during the war they decided that Manchester was a little too close to the action, and relocated to the Fylde Coast, Lancashire. It would have been a seriously-lost German pilot who found himself dropping bombs anywhere near them in this quiet backwater that was an ideal spot in which to while away the war years. Somehow, they acquired premises in King’s Road, St Annes and set up an engineering firm. (By a strange coincidence, I later served an apprenticeship at the garage that then occupied “their” premises – I did not know of the family connection at the time). What they engineered I do not know – very little according to my father as they lacked any engineering skills whatsoever. Eventually, they “sent for him” to help them out and my father, a healthy young man in his late 20s, left his reserved occupation and also relocated to the coast.
I have two sisters, both older than me, and I discussed this anomaly with Gwen, the eldest. She remembers as a young child walking with my mother and a pram containing the other sister Valerie. A neighbour saw them and called out “What’s in the pram then, a bundle of fivers!” This comment might explain a lot.
If there was one thing that my father loved, other than himself, it was cars – they gave him his independence, the ability to get away at any time of the day or night.
In the street where I grew up there were only three or four families with cars. We were one of them. When I was young, ours were good cars – a Sunbeam Talbot, a Vauxhall with acres of chrome, a Ford Consul Classic. Later, the cars were a barometer of my father’s declining fortunes and the last car that he drove was a battered, yellow, Ford Escort. His last days of driving were the cause of the only “row” that I can recall he and I ever having.
I moved to London in 1991 when my father was in his late 70s. His eyesight was deteriorating. He had some degenerative and progressive sight defect, I forget the name of the disease, that destroyed the central area of vision. He was still driving, mainly on instinct, and those brave enough to sit in the passenger seat of his car did so with bated breath as parked cars, probably unseen by my father, were missed by the narrowest of margins.
He phoned me in London one evening, which was an unusual occurrence in itself, to ask if I knew of a good solicitor in St Annes who would help him with “a little problem he had with the police”.
He had been driving into Blackpool a few evenings before. It was the time of Blackpool’s Illuminations and the two lanes leading into Blackpool from St Annes were separated by cones, so that the traffic for the Illuminations was in the left hand lane and all other traffic was routed away from the Promenade, and over Squires Gate Bridge. The cones were large, over a metre tall. My father drove into them, bowling them over like skittles, and one became wedged underneath his car. A policeman who was supervising the traffic took exception to his cone arrangement being disrupted and, after freeing the car, ordered my father to park on a near-by public-house forecourt. There, he found several faults with the car (not difficult) and, after looking at my father staring vacantly around through rheumy eyes, instructed him to read the number plate of a coach that was parked nearby. In truth, I suspect that my father couldn’t see the coach too well, and its registration numbers and letters would have been a complete mystery when viewed at a distance of more than a foot or so. He was forbidden to drive any further and would, certainly, face prosecution. Hence the phone call. He wanted me to help him get off.
I knew that the combination of his driving and his eyesight were bothering most people so I suggested that, in good daylight, he should stand 25 yards from a car that he didn’t know the number of, and read the number plate. If he could do so then I would help as best I could. If he couldn’t then he should reflect on the fact that the cone could have been one of his grand-children. He was furious and slammed the phone down. He telephoned me again the following evening and, sheepishly, both apologised and admitted that it was impossible for him to read a car number plate in good daylight. I suggested that he write a letter of explanation & apology to the Court and return his driving licence with the letter. He did so and thus ended his 60+ years of driving.
It seems that my father and his brothers prospered during and, for a while after, the war. They incorporated a company to manufacture briar pipes, and operated from premises in Blackpool. I was born in 1947 and it all seemed to go downhill from then. The comfortable, middle-class house that I do not remember was sold and we moved to a cheaper, in all senses of the word, address. My maternal grandmother, who had been sending money to my mother for her grandchildren, took ill and died. The flow of money from her shop in Manchester to my mother’s purse stopped; my father then found that he was supposed to provide for three growing children and that this was a not inconsiderable expense. There was, too, a falling out between him and his brothers and he left the business. The family story is that he was cheated out of his shares in the company, and received nothing. He being “cheated” or having his trust in someone betrayed or sheer bad luck was a recurrent theme over many subsequent years.
He set up in business by himself, selling domestic electrical goods on hire-purchase. He was regularly “cheated” by those whom he employed. He was a town-councillor for a while but, when he was due to become mayor for a term, they “rigged the votes” and “cheated him” out of his opportunity. Eventually, the government of the day imposed restrictions on the purchase of goods by hire-purchase. The new regulations meant that the customer had to put down a hefty deposit which rather shot my father’s business out from under him. Sheer bad luck or what?
Eventually, the vultures of bankruptcy came pecking over the remains of his business endeavours and he was declared insolvent. I was ten at the time but, by another strange coincidence, I joined the insolvency service some 30 years later and was able to “find” with some considerable effort, my father’s bankruptcy file. His narrative statement was illuminating, to someone who knew the truth, as it contained more disinformation than facts. Slight misspellings of names and addresses, car numbers and dates being one digit out, little things that hindered any investigation. The officials who had interviewed him thought that he “had a very high opinion of himself” (oh and how high it was!) and that through carelessness or calumny my father had blended his personal & business finances so thoroughly that it was unlikely that they could be separated.