The news yesterday mentioned that it was the hundredth anniversary of Bleriot’s flight across the channel. I cursed, silently. Not because I have anything against the French aeronaut, you understand: simply that it was ten at night before I realised that it was also what would have been the hundredth birthday of my grandfather’s second cousin – an anniversary he came within three years of reaching. His name was Peter Pottinger – Alec Innes Pottinger, but known as Peter – and he was pretty well the first person I encountered in my trawl, in 1994, for missing bits of my family jigsaw.
I rang him early in January 1994, when he was 84. He opened the conversation with the practised and challenging line, ‘I was born in Tientsin in 1909, on the day that Bleriot flew the channel. What about you?’ No answer to that (actually, there was no answer to that: September 3rd 1952 was by any standards a very slow day for news. A Belgian minister resigned. That was the top story).
His mother had been called May Greenwell, and her father had been my great-great-grandfather’s brother – a silversmith in Sunderland. The relationship between Peter and his grandfather could be defined in a bewildering number of ways. His grandfather had married (a second marriage) a woman called Ethel Pottinger. Her brother was called Bill Pottinger, and he proposed to May, by letter, from China, a proposal she accepted. So she came to marry her stepmother’s brother. It is hard actually to run through all the possible permutations of that relationship. His aunt was married to his grandfather. His father was arguably also his great-uncle.
In 1913, when Peter was three, he had been brought by his parents back to meet his grandfather, across Siberia by train. He recalled the journey, and also the old man; he recalled the steep stairs to the flay above the silversmith’s shop in Holmeside in Sunderland. Although he was three on the way there, his fourth birthday occurred on the journey back to Tientsin, but he was forbidden by his parents from mentioning it – because children aged four did not travel free. All his life he recalled arriving at the station in China, alighting, and stamping his foot on the platform, announcing, ‘Well, I’m four NOW.’
Meeting someone of my father’s father’s generation – some 25 years after my grandfather had died, and 7 years after my father’s death – was astonishing: not least because Peter was a radical thinker, with a very impish sense of humour. One of the nicest nights of my life occurred when he invited me to be the guest speaker at the Quaker reading group to which he belonged in Birmingham. I agreed, as long as he didn’t say anything about my subject, which was the strange business of tracing your relatives (family history was then comparatively speaking in its infancy). The reason to swear him to silence was that he was my punchline. I left his line till last, and feigned astonishment and bewilderment at the complexity of a family I had traced, i.e. his. And then I let his name out of the bag. It was a talk which went well, and I can still see him smiling with barely suppressed glee as I unmasked him as the biggest fish in my family net.
He wrote pages and pages of letters to me throughout the nineties and beyond, letters which I treasure – letters brimming with news, with condolence, with friendship, with vitality. It was like finding the grandfather you never had and wished you had always had – without any of the attendant issues of being actually related. A second cousin twice removed is at the outer limit of what most people might think of as family.
The main thing is: he was quite the nicest person I’ve ever met, and although it is absurd, I am kicking myself that I missed writing about his hundredth-that-never-was, on the due date.
So here, a day late, is a toast to Bleriot, and, more importantly, to Peter, who died in 2006. He was a remarkable man: from the days before recorded popular music was freely available, although he startled me once in about 2003, by suddenly singing the entire ‘Prune Song’ which was a success for a singer called Frank Crumit in the 1920s:
Every day in every way
The world is getting better
We’ve even learned to fly
As days go passing by
But how about the poor old prune
His life is only wetter
No wonder he can’t win
In the awful stew he’s in
No matter how young a prune may be
He’s always full of wrinkles
We may get them on our face
Prunes get ’em every place
Nothing ever worries them
Their life’s an open book
But no matter how young a prune may be
It has a worried look
At the end of the song (of which this is only an extract), he sat back and cracked the best grin I’ve ever seen. R.I.P. And isn’t this a great photo?