Eight: Perfectly Chilled
When I was three or four years old, I decided to go to the seaside, which was about one and a half miles away as the gull flies, and rather more vaguely That Way from my perspective. I took the bucket, I took the spade, and set cheerfully off for sun, sky and Granny, who lived down there as well. Perhaps this was an act of defiance, but more likely it was one of those light-bulb moments, when some gimcrack idea fills the filaments in the brain with Y-shaped enthusiasm. I have a fairly clear recollection of reaching the corner by the main road, and hearing the sudden screech of brakes, the shouting, the noise of the blood in my head. It was my mother, pregnant I think at the time, ordering me unreasonably back into her Morris Oxford.
The more sensible approach to my education, seeing that I had decided on the open university of life route to independence, was Mrs. Johnson's. Mrs. Johnson ran a private nursery school for a maximum of six children, about a mile in the other direction from the sea. There was a nod towards the essential acquisition of literacy, in that we had to stencil the alphabet on to sheets of coloured paper, and there were certainly books around. But what I remember mainly was that there was a slide inside Mrs. Johnson's front room, and we spent most of the time taking polite turns on its chute. It was a happy place (my brother followed me there four years later, and, as any child psychologist could have foretold, was sent home in disgrace one afternoon, the first child to have been too boisterous for the academy. Were brothers strictly necessary?)
In fact, I graduated to a new nursery school not long afterwards, a much more serious affair in a house called Hawthorn Lodge, where perhaps thirty under-fives were congregated and, for part of the time, required to do sums. This was more like it. Intellectual challenge. The really great thing about sums was getting a gold star ceremoniously licked by the teacher and stuck down next to a correct answer. I knew I was doing pretty well with the old addition and subtraction. In fact, after completing five additions in record time (we had to do this in silence, which, on the whole, I preferred), I mooched over to the box where the stars were kept, took five gold ones, and stuck them down proudly next to each answer. Unfortunately, and for reasons which almost elude me to this day, this caused a massive outbreak of umbrage in the teacher's head. There was some slight tantrum. Why had I stuck down these gold stars? Well, they were right answers, weren't they? Yes. Well? I shut my ears to the recriminations that followed.
Hawthorn Lodge arranged for a play to be performed by the children and performed to parents in the summer of 1957. Obviously they took the greatest care to select a show that would have the maximum appeal to four-year-olds and their doting mothers and fathers, something that could be perfectly pitched at performers and audience alike. So we did A Midsummer Night's Dream . I know there was some speaking involved, because I remember a certain amount of declamation, but the text was plainly cut down, and possibly ditched altogether. In any case, I was given three non-speaking parts, parts for which you will look in vain in Shakespeare - I was a frog, a rabbit, and a hunter. (Years later, I thought I had found a reference to a frog descending in Dream . Unhappily, it turned out to be a fog.)
I remember the rehearsals. Ten children were assembled in a hall (it may have been a room, really, but I wasn't that tall), and coached repeatedly in the art of hopping. This was to make the most of the march of the frogs that is so essential to the plot. After some exhausting hours at this, we were - well, frogmarched, to another part of the wood. There we were coached repeatedly in the art of hopping. This was to make the most of the riot of rabbits that is so essential to the plot. You are probably expecting me now to tell you that hunters also hopped, and you are wrong. We had plastic tomahawks, and walked in a circle, yodelling quietly. I might add that we had to have different costumes for each of these scenes, and that our parents were expected to provide them, which meant some midnight stitching, or a visit to the wise woman in East Boldon who must have coined it preparing the scholars of Hawthorn Lodge for their dramatic performances. I should add that this did not put me off Shakespeare. That did not happen until I was nine, and the school I by then attended - the one where I re-organised the library and wrote the Pulitzer-potential plays - used four books as class readers - Julius Caesar , A Tale Of Two Cities , The Talisman (rot by Scott about The Crusades), and Pilgrim's Progress . They knew how to entertain the troops in those days.
With bewildering speed, Hawthorn Lodge, where you wore your own clothes and there were real live actual hobby-horses in a special shed, gave way to the orthodoxy of compulsory education. One day I woke up in a red blazer, with a red and yellow cap, and was driven into Sunderland to a private day school for boys called Tonstall. It was a few streets away from where my great-great-great-grandfather had lived, but of course I didn't know that at the time. Tonstall School was an oasis for the children of Conservative-voting parents in one of the Labour Party's heartlands. It was where I learned my first political lesson, in the 1959 General Election - one in which the Labour Party stood not a chance on the national stage, but would walk it locally (1). Tonstall, from this point of view, might as well have been on Venus. I remember the word going round the playground that a boy whose surname (ironically enough) was Chamberlain had parents who had, horror, voted Labour. He was given a serious pummelling. I did make a few inquiries at the time of my mother about what was peculiarly evil about The Labour Party. I was in the Maud Kitts memorial picture gallery, the bathroom (she was still very much alive at the time, of course, not that anyone in my immediate family, including, I suspect, my grandfather, knew or cared). She told me they were very bad. This insight probably set me firmly on the road to socialism, whose greatest North-Eastern triumph occurred in about 1974, at a local council contest. Clare and I were both at home, and both eligible to vote, and both students, so sleepers-in. My parents tiptoed up to the polling station at the start of the day, and placed each personal X against the Conservative. Clare and I left it until the last few minutes before the polls closed, sauntered up, and cancelled their votes out. We were hot on open political debate in our household.
We were not a religious family, although the schools to which we went were very keen on graces and sermons and prayers and hymns. At home, there was an agnostic indifference to the church, mainly fostered by my father. However, we did go to Sunday School, and, since my Newnes Pictorial Encyclopedia made a fair old fuss about the Bible, I knew a good bit about the historical sections. What especially impressed me, of course, was the genealogical angle. The Israelites were big in the begetting department. I used to enjoy going through the card at the opening of St. Matthew's Gospel, which details the descent from Abraham to Jesus. Something gets their dander up once they've been forcibly sequestered in Babylon, and there are some great names as a result: Jechonias, Salathiel, Zorobabel, Abiud, Eliakim, although you can make an earlier case for Salmon, his son Booz and his son Obed as going for a great triple of implausible monikers. In the Greenwell family, there was nothing so inventive. Thomas, William, Robert, Mabel and Jane keep showing up with wilful regularity.
Sunday School did allow me a little theological argument, however, and my you're- wrong-I'm-right routine had some practice when I was six over which day was the first of the week. The vicar, an Anglican, said it was Sunday. But my teacher at Tunstall, a Miss Highland, was double-certain it was Monday. On the seventh day, God rested, didn't He? She had a good point. Miss Highland, in fact, had several good points, although there were only three of us in the class who were receiving the full benefit of her wisdom. This was because we could all spell. I could also identify the capital cities and flags of the world known to Newnes. Not a wasted childhood, after all. The three of us were teacher's heavy pets (the rest of the class were merely fodder for her whacks on the back of the thigh with the wooden board-rubber). One playtime, whilst I was minding my own imagination on a patch of concrete, and doing my best to erase my tastebuds' revolted memory of the third-of-a-pint of free milk, she sent for me. She had marked an arithmetic paper, and - no gold stars! - I had slipped up a little on my fractions. In fact, I had let her right down. So she dictated the right answers to me, ensuring that my place at the top of the class tree was secure.
Miss Highland did not merely change our concept of the days of the week and inflate my (her) self-esteem. She also spiced up the prayers with which we began the day, by introducing us to a character who normally entered the church Top Twenty, if at all, at the lower end - The Virgin Mary. This character, a female of blameless character but relative insignificance in the gospels, was given some star billing. Now it happened that, as the evangelists say, many of the Tunstall boys, myself included, were required to say their prayers in public before bedtime, and by public, I don't include my father, who would have been down in the kitchen with the sports pages of The Sunderland Echo (depressing reading at the time - the team was out of the First Division for the first time in its seventy-year-old history). My mother, a keen listener, spotted that I had taken to asking God to bestow the best of his blessings not just on Mummy, Daddy, Clare, David, and any grandparents, aunts, uncles or goldfish I wished to add in, but also The Virgin Mary. Consternation! It transpired that several other decently Protestant, fee-paying parents were going through the same trauma. Miss Highland was smoothly removed from the staff at the end of the year, and I had to do my sums on my tod.
I had three godparents who were charged with my spiritual welfare. The family quirk whereby one of these was my father put the kybosh on part of my prospects. My mother's sister was a much better bet, since she was actually very spiritual indeed. But she lived in Essex, which was pretty much the other side of the Alps as far as we were concerned, and this too limited my religious fervour. The really great godparent was a twenty-stone mate of my father's, whom my father had met whilst stationed at Bramhall in Warwickshire (as curious a naval posting as you'll find) after the war. My father, a county rugby player, had turned out for Nuneaton R.F.C., and my erstwhile godfather, Uncle “Tom” Clay, was its chairman. He was a lovely man, and a complete and utter lush. I never met him sober.
When Uncle Tom (whose contribution to my piety was the gift of some port) came to stay, the whole household grew warm. We sat before him and rubbed our hands with glee. He would invariably arrive at the family breakfast table with a soft toy concealed beneath his jacket (which had usually seen better days). He was always laughing in the presence of children, and assiduous to them. By far the most memorable occasion took place at his own house in Nuneaton, where my mother and father, my aunt (Pamela) and her husband once took my cousin Mark and myself. We would have been about 14. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Uncle Tom had made a convivial start to the day. Just inside the door was an empty bottle of gin, its neck pointing to the main room. “It's to show you the way in,” he told my uncle (who was called Gordon).
The afternoon binged its way forward, with Uncle Tom expatiating on a variety of subjects (more about cuts in the navy, as I recall), whilst suddenly recalling that he had juveniles amongst his guests, and offering them a token of his esteem. This began with the refrain, “Bill, have a banana”, moved on, after several doubles, to “Bill, have a boiled egg,” before culminating, after a switch of spirits, in “Bill, have a navy”. The phrase “Have a boiled egg” passed into family argot. Families speak in bewildering codes and in the remnants of punchlines. How and why they catch on is a matter for a doctoral thesis, I expect. For instance, the word “vicar”, although seldom heard in our house, would immediately cause someone to say “basket”. The origin of this extremely unfunny pun was a sketch in a Christmas Night With The Stars TV show, featuring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd (“Hugh and I”), which culminated with a grandfather figure, who had been trained incompetently in a word association game by connecting “wicker” to “basket”, mishearing the news that a vicar had arrived, clapping his knees three times and saying - well, you know by now.
There were two memorable moments that day in Nuneaton, which was during a hot summer. One was when, spotting a hat in the very long grass that might once have been a lawn, I asked Uncle Tom what it was doing there. Without pausing, he replied “That's my snowman from last Christmas”. The other came when he invited me into his holy of holies, his booze cupboard, to show me the port he had been saving for me. This triggered a memory of the winter months, in which Uncle Tom had, so he admitted, fallen in with some Coventry FC (rather than RFC) supporters, and had asked them back for several drinks. They had apparently raided his supply of white wine. “I went out next morning in the snow,” he said. “They'd dropped some hock. It was perfectly chilled - so I drank it.” I think it could fairly be said that this lesson in forgiveness was the closest I ever got to moral guidance from my godparents.
The family holidays in Bamburgh came to a gradual end. We had to wean ourselves off the North-East coast in stages, staying in 1966 in Belford in a hotel for a week. This meant in practice that we drove each day from Belford to Bamburgh, a short distance, but there was no more owl, no more lighthouse. By 1967, something much more radical was proposed. We would go to Ireland, to Donegal. This was a departure my mother had been working on for some time. It was a crafty compromise between my father's tender loathing for hot climates, and my mother's preference for somewhere that involved no cooking with the selection of permissible saucepans. My father, whose Bamburgh excursions were a sort of echo of his own childhood trips to Alnmouth, had had to be weaned off his practice of (for instance) sending a concrete mattress to the holiday house in advance, since he professed to be unable to sleep on anything that had any give or take on it. You couldn't bounce on my parents' bed at home. You'd have broken every bone in your foot.
The hotel selected was in Rosapenna, which had a huge, endless sandy beach, and which fronted the Atlantic Ocean rather than the North Sea, an exchange that was at least in keeping with the non-tropical vistas my father preferred. I was fourteen, Clare was twelve, David was ten. We were practically pensionable. We could be trusted not to get into mischief by accident (we were old enough to plan it). In the past, we had fallen over banisters (Clare), or put gravel in petrol tanks (me, wasn't that where gravel was supposed to go?), and de-trummed a mattress before getting a head stuck between the bars at the end of the bed, in the spankable position (me again). Trums are the thingymebobs you find in mattresses, highly pluckable. David was always well-behaved on holiday, of course. Not the sort of brother who would whack you round the head with a metal spade at all (just because I'd dug a six-foot hole in the beach, placed a towel over it, and said “Come here, David” - what was so wrong with that?) David was more of a danger at home, really. At the age of two, he had wandered in to see me in the morning, and started to fiddle away to his heart's content with bits and bobs and mats and china ornaments. I was too deep in Volume VII of Newnes Pictorial Encyclopedia, always refreshing before school, I found, to spot his experiments with the gravitational pull the Earth exerted on objects dropped from an upper-storey window (Volume IX). I looked up from a most interesting article on Archimedes getting into a bath (“You can imagine what happened: a great deal of water overflowed from the bath and on to the floor”. Hmmm. Worth an experiment.)
What I saw was a pair of small but perfectly formed and unslippered feet, and the very bottoms of two stripey pyjama legs, like something out of a cartoon, dropping from the mid-air just outside the window. Uh-oh. Brother In Freefall Crisis. I hurried along to my parents' room, where my father was still sleepily moulding his body to the contourless hardcore on which he had until recently been snoring. “David's fallen out of the window,” I said. “It's early in the - what did you say?” replied my mother and father, in two-part disharmony. “David's fallen...,” I began. But my father was already sprinting past me, taking the stairs five at a time. My brother was soon restored, having missed some crazy paving by a couple of inches, opting instead for a header into a flower bed. He was the centre of breakfast attention, having even had a doctor called out to him. “I went flying and flying and bump,” he informed us expressively. More than sick of the limelight in which he was bathing, I made sure in the playground later that, as the sole witness of the moment of drama, my scoop made the school headlines. Brother Subjected To Horror. A much more interesting tale.
Now we were tooling our way along country lanes, the car radio playing Strawberry Fields Forever. We were in Ireland! We were on the continent! We were also playing That's My Dog with a difference. It is a game of considerable subtlety, and has a habit of giving the passenger in the front seat (my mother) a marked advantage. As a result, the three of us in the back pressed our heads perpetually forward. That's My Dog - wrecked for the nation by a succession of transport and environment ministers who have opened so many motorways - has a simple premise. You see a dog. You let your lungs hang out immediately. That's My Dog! Two points. As a sop to the less adventurous, a horse will crank up your score by one point. A cat, on the other hand, gets you a well-merited Three. This was Ireland, so we added That's My Donkey, and gave it a whopping Four. Since That's My Donkey was a self-fulfilling prophecy on the road to Donegal, this was point-scoring in every sense.
A wheeze which Clare and I perfected (you didn't give state secrets like this to any ten-year-olds) was the dummy dog. You fixed your eye on a spot in the distance, rinsed your lips with your tongue, and filled your face with fixation. As the shape grew closer, you strained your mouth in anticipation. Result: your younger brother says “That's My Dog!” But it's not, it's a pram, you lose two points. What d'you mean, I lose two points? That's the rules. What rules? The rules. The family rules.
The hotel had everything, everything. It had a girl the same age as Clare. It had a girl the same age as me. It had a boy the same age as David. There was a waiter called Declan for Clare and her new friend Linda to flirt with. There were two families ready to swap gin and conversation with my parents. The dunes rolled. The sun caked the air. You could eat ham salad every single meal, and no-one complained. There was a record-player on which to play the records I had started to amass. It was 1967, and the air was filled with flowers. I had already embarrassed my mother by jangling down Holmeside and High Street in Sunderland (past, although I did not know it then, the house where William and Ethel, May and Fred had lived; past the place where Willie Hallewell's off-licence had been; down the route that Maud Kitts took on her daily journey to lunch in Jopling's, one of the department stores), and wearing a white straw hat with LOVE and PEACE and HAPPY lipsticked on to it, my wrists greening quietly under cheap copper bracelets.
Now I was in Ireland, a faraway place, and there was someone else who wanted to hear The Doors play Light My Fire seventeen times in succession. It was the first time the whole family had sat together in a spacious hotel dining room. Then something happened, after perhaps three days. The hotel manager solicitously approached the table. There was a phone call for my father. Would he take it now? He left the table.
After a while, he came back, and gingerly resumed his seat. To this day, I have no idea what impelled him to do so, what cursed politesse he was following, what automatic pilot he was on, how normal he wished everything to appear. He said something quite quietly to my mother, and picked at his food, one course adrift. It was as if he had constructed a box of painful silence, and placed himself inside it. All around us the knives and forks clattered absently, a percussion overlaid with the chit-chat of other families. There were tears in his eyes, trying to ignore themselves, soft and lost tears of terrible distress. He put such a colossal effort into concealing them that he probably fooled my brother and sister. His own sister had just rung him to tell him that his mother was dying, and that he needed to go home immediately.
I was summoned to my parents' room, by which time he had recovered every ounce of his composure. I didn't really take it in. There was some gentle reminder that I had to help my mother, that I was “jointly in charge”, or something to that effect, but that he would be leaving the holiday there and then. What in retrospect is quite true to admit was that this was almost precisely our ticket to what we fondly imagined was a wild holiday. In actual fact, I suspect we were very well-behaved, if disobedient to the point of reason. So, for instance, the hat with LOVE etc. appeared at a beach party ( a beach party ! - this only ever happened in Elvis movies!). The girl and I groped each other with a very high degree of inexpertise in a faraway dune, watched by my sister and friend in the very next faraway dune along.
Clare and I always shared our sexual prehistory, which was inconsiderable. The defining moment came when David came to us for advice - about four years after Rosapenna, I would say. He looked a bit sheepish, as younger brothers do, bless them. He wanted some advice on his pubescent love-life. Could we advise him? Of course we could. We took him into a room with teddy bears, and prepared to explain the right way to ask a girl out, how you dialled, what options there were for romantic trysts (the cinema, the bowling alley, er....). He came straight to the point. “I think I've got a girl pregnant,” he said. We stared at him, not so much appalled as completely and utterly out of our depth. How did you do that ?
My grandmother's death (and my grandfather's, hard on its heels) was a peculiar non-event in our lives. We did not go to either funeral, nor, frankly, know when or where they took place. Our family culture did not include anyone under eighteen in the fact of death (2). I was not much further on at the age of fifteen than I had been at the age of five, when my mother's father died (his was the improving legacy that purchased the encyclopedias). I had just gone to proper school, as opposed to nursery school, and I do remember explaining to my new friends that my grandfather had died drinking coffee. Well, if you eavesdrop what your parents are discussing, and they talk about a coffin, it's an easy mistake to make when you're five. At that age, I remember starting a Death Book, which included both my mother's parents; the headmaster of the school, a Mr. Cheshire, who died almost as I arrived; and an underfed goldfish called Cuddles.
My own father's death, in 1987, took me by violent surprise. The shipyard had long since closed, and he himself had watched it being taken over first by Court Line, which then crashed spectacularly, and then nationalised. (Greenwell's yard had long been amalgamated, together with other, shipbuilding firms, as Doxford's, of which he had become overall managing director not long after his father had died. It was a source of regret to him that his father had not lived to see him advanced like this). He had bailed out during the brief Court Line era, and it was to be three years before he worked again, this time as the managing director of a tug firm on the Tyne. The previous incumbent had been blown up in an IRA restaurant bomb in London. He was the logical choice - he had a great deal of experience of the ship industry, and had been president of the Shipbuilders Employers Federation (and for longer than that, of the smaller Ship Repairers National Association).
In truth, we had rather drifted apart, for a variety of reasons, the main one being the acceptable mobility of children. He had himself resisted being lured away from the North-East, to Norway, to Northern Ireland, even to Australia. The Sunderland link was too strong. Clare, David and I had moved respectively to Dorset, Nottingham, Devon - although Clare had worked for five years in Rome. By this time, we were all teachers. We had all also been to boarding schools, and then to universities during the massive expansion of university places in the 1960s and early 1970s. My father in particular was genuinely surprised when I told him, at the age of nineteen, that I would not be coming home “for the holidays”. He had grown used to the cycle of meeting and leaving. And once we had all left, what remained of family was in physical terms, far more tenuous than anyone had expected.
He was coming up to sixty-five, and had started to plan his retirement, a retirement in which, amongst other things, he had considered dabbling with the documents my grandfather had amassed. But he felt too ill for his formal leaving do to go ahead, and it was duly postponed. This was in the February. My own belief is that the specialist he saw told him there and then that he had lung cancer, and that his chances of survival for even a year were zero. It would have been characteristic of him to have held this in, to have confided in himself. He had been smoking very heavily since he was a teenager, so the odds on his reaching his seventies had certainly shortened dramatically. He could not understand why we were not all rallying round - the reason being, that we had no conception of just how serious it all was. The first real inkling I had was when my aunt suddenly phoned me, having heard that I was going to visit him. “You won't recognise him,” she told me.
Clare and I met and travelled up on the same train. We chuntered away like old times, and kept the discomfits under our tongues. Going home was always full of breeze and bustle, of expected memories, of that peculiar recognition of roads, paths, the way a table was laid, the successful blindman's buff of knowing what was in the fridge without looking, of familiar photographs and pictures on familiar walls. It was always aggravating if a room had been re-painted, if an ornament had been shifted. Houses are not rooms. They are haunts, in which agreeable ghosts leave their faint fingerprints. The sofa should be at that angle. That space on the Aga is where Clare should be sitting.
My father's pitch was always in the kitchen, fetched up against a wall by a built-in table, where he could stretch his long legs in comfort. When you came through the back door, you looked straight at where he was sitting. He was a wraith, a goner. You could tell that the instant you looked at him, and from the way your jaw cranked itself into an instantly more breezy smile. They had already given him as much access to morphine as he wanted. He was having some trouble with joined-up concentration. Clare and my mother were suddenly elsewhere, and he motioned me over. Own goal, got to bite the bullet . This was when he said it to me, fast, as if he couldn't bear the thought of anyone else overhearing. That was the sum total of his conversation about his death, a pair of stunning banalities.
Not that I wanted any more.
This is what I remember. Watching him try to eat solid food for the final time. My mother vainly trying to heat and flavour some liquid food, which came in anonymous cans from the chemist. His standing outside on a June afternoon, looking at the garden, speculating what would grow, and saying “It's all right, I haven't given up hope yet.” His suddenly insisting on drinking a Pimm's (the bottle must have been there for years. Nobody ever drank Pimm's. It was in there with a bottle of Angostura bitters from the 1950s). The quiet word I had with the doctor about his prospects, expecting a sentence of three months, and getting a week. Listening to his polite inquiry of the doctor about the pain in his arm (it had snapped).
Worst of all, the shoal of cards that came rattling through the door four days before he died - it was my mother's birthday. He had forgotten it, for the first time, and suddenly he remembered with terrible distress that he had forgotten. Helping him for the first and last time to undress, and hearing him say “Thank you, Bill”. The line of change, the watch all laid out as per usual. For some reason, and I wonder now if it was optimism or fear, I travelled 400 miles back on the train, only to be woken at six o'clock on a Monday morning by Clare. She couldn't say dead ; she said gone . I was too late when I got back - he had already been moved. The last time I saw my father, he was lying in a parlour behind a tatty florist's shop. He looked very tranquil. It was in the same road in Sunderland as his great-great-grandfather, Robert Wilson Greenwell, had lived.
(1) The last non-Labour MP in Sunderland was elected in 1955. Since the 1959 election, both North and South Sunderland have regularly returned Labour MPs.
(2) Even the inclusion of women was quite new. When my grandmother's brother died in 1951, she, her sister, and her sister-in-law, that is, the widow, sat together on the sea-front whilst the final obsequies were observed.