1970 – part 2

August 15, 2010

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last month in Oxford – longer than any time since I was a student there. I’m not a go-back person where Oxford is concerned, and I don’t have the dreaming-spires-in-my-eyes aura of an alumnus (a word of which I’m irrationally unfond). I was working with interesting students on a summer school at Exeter College, Oxford. This is curious only because I worked for 28 years at Exeter College, Exeter – quite a different institution, and one which features in the Exeter College, Oxford literature about the course, as in, Don’t Make A Mistake And Go To Exeter College, Exeter. I do have a vague memory of a student arriving in Exeter looking for Oxford.

I rang my son. Guess where I am? I said. I’m at Exeter College. Oh, he said, have they built another one? Yes, in 1314, I said.

My favourite moment was when a porter, attempting to get from A to B with some urgency, ran across the hallowed grass quadrangle. He was running so fast he was doing a sort of Norman Wisdom run. As he ran, he spotted me watching him. ‘You do realise,’ he called, ‘that you are not allowed to go across the quadrangle.’

It triggered various memories. One was of my father’s innocent delight when he found out I’d been accepted – there was relief in there, too, since I had quite churlishly indicated I wasn’t going there unless I got into the one modern, brutalistically designed college (Harold Macmillan had said it looked like a petrol station. I was therefore attracted). I had to wait about nine months before going. As the time for me to become an Oxford student approached, my father, never one to instigate a conversation about trivia, suddenly said ‘We must get you some new clothes.’

I asked him why.

He looked me up and down, and said, ‘Well you won’t be able to go to Oxford looking like that.’ He ran his eye over my wrecked T-shirt and jeans.

‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Everyone dresses like this at university.’

‘Don’t give me that.’ (A catchphrase of his.)

‘No, honestly.’

I can still see him, sitting down to ring one of his friends who had a student son, to prove me wrong. It would have been about forty years ago. I remember seeing the look of incredulity mosey over his face. He didn’t even bother to finish the conversation with me: just went off, shaking his head.



May 7, 2009

I have no time for ties. They seem to me to be, of all items of clothing, the most completely useless. They don’t keep you warm. They don’t have any function (as underwear does – I’m reminded suddenly of Ferlinghetti’s lines in his poem ‘Underwear’ – ‘Women’s underwear keeps things up/ Men’s underwear keeps things down’). They aren’t particularly glamorous, like scarves, although they do have the same Isadora-like ability to snag in something like a mangle (I know, I know, it’s a long time since I went near a mangle, but there we are, there’s nothing wrong with exaggeration). Ties, I think, are spurious assertions of formality and authority. I have a tie complex, as you see. Plainly there are dissidents in this matter of ties (my wife coos over Jon Snow and his ties on Channel 4 News). I have a black tie for funerals, and a blue tie for interviews, and an old tie from the 1960s, because I never chuck much away. But that’s about it. My neck is generally on view.

But my father had maybe a hundred ties, many of them with obscure crests, and he could probably have told you about each one. He may even have been hoarding some of his father’s ties, since, however I try to think of myself as different from my father, I recognise myself now and then.

When he died, therefore, he left an unwanted legacy. What was to become of all these ties? Even the charity shops didn’t want them (although charity shops were less of an industry in the 1980s). So I decided to make a bonfire of them. I wasn’t thinking straight, for obvious reasons. But I will pass on this advice to any tie-burners out there: it’s a bad idea. They do not burn. On about the fifth attempt, they smoulder. They smoked away, resentfully, for the best part of a day.

At this point, I am going to resuscitate another poem from the past. I think this one did actually net me a tenner in a competition, so someone somewhere thought something of it.


I tried to burn my father’s ties
(Myself, I wear a crew-neck shirt);
Although some sparks began to rise,
The fire smouldered, looked inert.

The proud Nuneaton rugby crest,
The logo from the TSB,
The old school stripes that crossed his chest,
The mourning black he lent to me:

All stubbornly refused to blaze.
I took a stick and tried to poke
The ties worn twenty thousand days
When he himself was long since smoke.

I buried them beneath the weeds,
Beneath the shadow of a beech.
Absurd, then, how my heart still bleeds:
His ties, more eloquent than speech.

Rosemary Bowmer

April 24, 2009

I have been scratching my head, and I don’t think I’ve been to a memorial service before, but I went to one this week, for my father’s first cousin Rosemary, whose death I mentioned in my April 5th blog. The service once again brought home to me how – I was going to say ‘fissiparous’ – what the hell – fissiparous my family is. Splits all over the place. Rosemary and my father did not meet, I suspect, in the last 20-25 years of his life, because he stuck to his father’s injunctions about relatives. If my grandfather struck someone off his list, my father seems to have followed suit. I could not tell you why. There is no reason for grudges to run in generations. It reminds me of that story by Saki, ‘the Interlopers’, which is about two men whose family have an ancestral suit about land. The story has them stalking each other until caught in a storm, at which point a tree falls and traps them. Forced into each other’s company, they talk, and, within a short while, recognise and dismiss as nonsensical all their differences.

The tension of the story is maintained by the eagerness of each man becoming more and more anxious that his own supporters and servants will rescue them both, and that this ‘winner’ will be able to show the greater magnaminity. show the greater generosity. Feet are heard in the distance. One of the men is trapped so that he cannot see into the wood; the other can make out who is coming. ‘Who is it?’ asks the badly-trapped man with great urgency. The last word of the story (which we used to beg to be read, at school) is very carefully calculated by Saki. It is, ‘Wolves.’

Anyway – at the memorial service, I found that I was the only relative. (There had been none at her actual funeral.) Her father’s relatives – none. Her mother’s – one. (This is not to suggest that she was ignored – she had an adopted family, that of the friend with whom she lived for half a century, and whom she loved, but it certainly doesn’t say a lot for the Greenwells.)

Rosemary as a young girl

Rosemary as a young girl

Rosemary, who suffered from Parkinson’s, did a very brave thing – donated her brain to Parkinson’s research (and her possessions to charity). This is a kind of selflessness to which I tip my hat. I don’t know if I could do it (I had another more distant relative, a centenarian, who donated her whole body to science). Perhaps I should have the courage of my lack of religious convictions.

There was a double connection to Rosemary. Her brother, Bill, killed in World War II, had been my mother’s boyfriend, some ten years before she met and married my father. There was always a belief (alas, untrue), that I had been named for him. I have the impression that there was rivalry between them, too, and that my father may have been a little more of a louche individual at the age of twenty, whereas Bill was a sensitive letter-writer (he carried on a correspondence with her in the war, although he was no longer her sweetheart). But perhaps this is a misunderstanding. There is one (very) grainy picture of them together:

My father (left) and his cousin, Bill

My father (left) and his cousin, Bill

Something – everything! – about my father’s attitude suggests that the rumours were true.

Rosemary had picked out all the hymns. By an odd coincidence, they included the one my own mother liked least: ‘O Worship The King’, by Sir Robert Grant, which contains the line ‘Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail’. But she had a good reason to dislike it. Her surname was Frail, and the hymn was used to tease her.

I also have to say that I learned more about Rosemary today than at any point in the last fifteen years – including that she had a slightly scandalous unpublished novel, and that – inevitable in war-time, with her surname – she was known as ‘Bomber’.

I’m glad I broke the cycle of rivalry. RIP.

My parents and their cousins

April 5, 2009

I like the idea of cousins, of extended families, but there is no history of it in my family, either on my mother’s side, or on my father’s. I had four great-aunts alive during my life, two on either side, and I met one of them (discounting when I was under the age of five) once, another twice, another twice, and the other, not at all. When you consider that three of them lived well into their nineties, and that three lived ten, twelve and twenty-five minutes away, this is shamefully weird. I didn’t know that one of them existed at all until I was 18. In each case, there was a strong sense of Don’t Go There. And yet I have first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins with whom I correspond, with whom I have stayed, and who I like very much.

My father would have found this odd (my forays into family did not begin, and probably couldn’t have, because he had the documents which led me to these cousins hidden on top of a wardrobe, until five years after he died). My mother was slightly frightened by it. Her parents had been brought up in circumstances which meant that, bit by bit, they cut themselves adrift from their siblings. Her father had been farmed out at birth to his grandparents; her mother was the youngest, and believed herself to have been left to mind her father by her brothers. They did in fact keep up with about six cousins, by my count, but my grandparents’ death in the 1950s put an end to the contact.

But on my father’s side, the distance was preserved by a degree of animosity which he had inherited from the villain of the piece, my grandfather. My grandfather did not like, in this order, his sister, his brother-in-law, his wife’s sister, and his wife’s brother-in-law (his wife had had an elder brother, who died before I was born). Indeed, he seems to have liked no-one other than his wife and an old army friend. He was also pretty cool towards his daughter. So my father grew up as the golden boy (his mother wept from start to finish throughout his wedding to my mother – all wedding pictures of his mother show a woman who is distraught. Perhaps she realised that life was going to consist more exclusively of her anti-social husband from then on).

In 1952, not long before I was born, my father moved to the family shipyard, a repair-yard in Sunderland at the height of its success – a couple of months after I was born, they opened the largest dry-dock in the world (destined to be filled in only thirty or so years later). At the time, my father, then still only 30, was joining a board of managers which included my grandfather and his brother-in-law, who was called Whit Bowmer. Whit Bowmer had gained the job through the candidly nepotistical route common to all Sunderland shipyards of the day. There’s an American who has dedicated his retirement to linking up the ship-building and – repairing families of the Wear. Incestuous doesn’t begin to describe it.

But it would seem that Whit Bowmer would have been given the honour of making a speech that day, an honour passed straight to my father by my grandfather, and a speech in which a newly-born me gets a walk-on mention: not least since my full name, Thomas William Greenwell, was the name over the gates, and had belonged to the yard’s founder, my great-grandfather. He’d died in 1948. Four years later, my name wasn’t going to be anything else.

The Bowmers – my grandfather’s sister and her husband Whit, and their daughter Rosemary – moved away (although perhaps Rosemary had already moved on. There had been an elder brother, Bill Bowmer – William Henry Greenwell Bowmer – who had been killed in 1942, off Algeria, when his ship, HMS Martin, was torpedoed). The account-books in the Tyne and Wear archive seem to support the idea that this was within a year of my father’s arrival. My grandfather never spoke to his sister again (she was the one I never met).

And in fact, I never met Rosemary, either, until 1993, a result of her having been the last person who knew that there was a family secret – my great-great-grandfather’s indiscretion at the age of 59 (see earlier blogs), and the child – his ninth – born as a result. Now Rosemary, at the age of 81, has also died: another link in the chain, snapped. Only my father’s sister (with whom he did not get on) kept up with her. If I hadn’t turned up one day in the 1990s, the link would have snapped long ago. She held me at arm’s length, to see if she could spot any signs of my father, and, over the next few years, wrote a great deal for me, while still able to do so (Parkinson’s got at her).

If I wrote the tale of my family and focused only on its attitude to cousins, it would seem almost macabre. I am really glad to have unpicked that lock. Here’s to cousins, to Rosemary, and a curse on my grandfather and his petty squabbles.

Formal overcoats, frozen chickens, and rosé

March 26, 2009

Apparently we are drinking more rosé, instead of buying wine-boxes – there was a long article in The Guardian about what kinds of corners people are cutting because of the recession and because of deflation (I understand the perils of deflation, I think, but it is quite odd to be in a situation in which the enemy is not inflation, which is the spectre which was used to terrorise us by successive oppositions in the seventies and eighties – surely the upside is that prices stay the same and our pay doesn’t go up? I know that’s simplistic, but when inflation spirals upwards, prices go up and our pay doesn’t keep up with the prices – no wonder I couldn’t cope with Economics A level).

But why rosé? Are we saying that rosé is less costly, and that we prefer bottles? Are we admitting that a wine-box is a clever way of drinking too much without actually letting other people see it? And what is happening to the sale of wine-boxes which contain rosé? Hmmm.

The other thing that isn’t selling is frozen chickens. I don’t get that, either. People are apparently going to the supermarket rotisserie and buying the hot ones. But a frozen chicken is surely cheaper (I’m not bothering about the ethics of what kind of chicken it is acceptable to eat here, that’s a different debate), isn’t it? And you cook it yourself, preferably after defrosting. Are we saying that people are not using their ovens, to save electricity? It all seems a bit weird to me.

But the oddest item on the list is ‘formal overcoats’. What a great phrase that is. Imagine a household in which the family inspects the bills, and says, ‘You know what, we could cut back a bit on the formal overcoats.’ I suppose by this, they mean, ‘overcoats’. What an ‘informal overcoat’ is, is a bit of a teaser. ‘I am wearing a casual overcoat today.’ Eh? Or is the thing that we’re prepared to shiver a bit, or that we already have a coat, and we are going to leave it a little bit longer before lashing out on another? Or is that we are all wearing anoraks instead?

Having a coat – a ‘formal overcoat’, I suppose – was one of life’s tedious essentials when I was little, and wearing a coat is still a sort of routine (the most common line in ‘Coronation Street’ is ‘I’ll get my coat’, and I assume it’s a ‘formal’ one that’s being referred to). The big trend in the late sixties was to wear a short coat (Joe Kagan got rich on the Gannex and Dannimac), and perhaps that caused the makers of coats a bit of hardship then, since the demand for fabric presumably went down. A coat wasn’t a purchase you could be entrusted to make by yourself, of course. In fact, when it came to the business of Buying A Coat, my mother refused to take part, and delegated the buisness to my father. So when I was about fourteen – of coat-wearing age, but not coat-purchasing age – he rather grimly took me to the centre of Sunderland to a department store called Blackett’s.

My father’s idea of shopping (I know I am drifting from the point, but I can’t actually understand all these changes in shopping habits, pun not intended) was a bit like mine – go in, get the thing, pay, come out. He wasn’t, however, necessarily to be trusted on the style front. I remember being frog-marched into the shop and shown a rack. My father said, ‘That one, that one, or that one.’ Even a choice of three was a bit surprising, given that my father was involved. I chose something that bore a dangerous resemblance to a milkman’s coat, and he sighed, and paid.

I even remember getting home and his looking at my mother and at me and at the coat with a sort of strange disdain, as if to say ‘I have been shopping. The job is done. I wash my hands of the affair.’

I am afraid you are going to hear more from me on the subject of coats.

Off-kilter voices

February 25, 2009

I’m not a good singer, but I do hit the note every so often. Else why would they have given me the second solo in ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ (the second verse, and I’ve forgotten it, too), in the carol service when I was ten? Not the first solo, notice.

This isn’t the memory which first sprang to mind when I started writing (I don’t plan what I’m going to write: fatal: you may have noticed), so I will digress immediately. I had forgotten that one minute of fame. It was an unspoken rule of boarding schools that, if the child, expelled as he or she had been from the family home in the hope of acquiring manners and a straight path to the City or Army, was chosen to do something special, a parent had to attend. At ten I had only been despatched about sixty miles, into the Deep South of Yorkshire, so my father (selected on this occasion) hadn’t far to drive. But then my father, who worshipped the sensation of speed, and had one of the first E-Types, never had very far to drive, in terms of time. So his calculation of how long it would take was different from that of a normal mortal.

It was very, very foggy that night, and I knew he would be putting his foot down. Like all the other well-scrubbed children incarcerated in this particular not-very-home-from-home, I was looking out for him in the audience (i.e. congregation). But there was no sign of him from where I was looking – I would have been in the choir stalls, and have had an elevated view. So I decided that, since there was fog, and he was speeding, that he was dead. And that was why I sang the solo with tears pouring down my cheeks. I expect the listeners were moved my by devotion to the Christian cause, and put some extra silver in the box passed round. It was an emotional and rather wobbly rendition. After my stint, I retired to the stalls again, and persisted with my sobs.

Actually, he was there, but too late to nab a pew, and listening loyally from the ante-chapel, out of sight, and probably wondering what he had done to be sent down the A1 for such a trifle. But that was me, and still is: fear the worst. I just don’t burst into tears so easily any more.

What I intended to write about was triggered by listening to Davy Graham (‘Folk, Blues, And Beyond’), the brilliant folk-jazz-fusion guitarist, who died last year, and who is rightly thought to have influenced everyone by changing the tuning of his guitar, and experimenting with eastern influences. He never made it very big, but having a smack habit didn’t help. I love his guitar.

But I am not keen on his voice. Why is that so many folk singers (male, I can’t think of a female equivalent) sing so oddly, and off the note (Bert Jansch is another culprit)? I’m not addicted to melody, but I always wish they’d recorded the guitar into one channel, and the voice into another. And yet the moment I’d thought of how odd Davy Graham sounds (to folk purists, I expect this is heresy), it occurred to me that there are plenty of flat singers who don’t cause me anything like the same problem. Astrud Gilberto always sings off the note (desafinado is the technical term, I think), and I’m quite keen on her. Liam Gallagher of Oasis sings off the note, too, but he is objectionable for other reasons, and anyway, vocal sneering was in style in the 1990s. And Bob Dylan’s voice encouraged a host of imitators to think anyone could sing (big mistake).

In fact, what attracted me to Dylan was his voice, not least because I was too young really to understand the words when I first encountered him. Even now, although his voice is wrecked beyond recognition, I quite enjoy it. But that may be blind loyalty.

So, no answers to the conundrum. I will just have to live with the voice for the sake of the guitar.


December 31, 2008

What must December 31st have been like two hundred and sixty years ago? Meaningless: it wasn’t the end of anything but December. The year didn’t end till March 24th (and I don’t know if this was marked by any excess). It must have been odd in 1752, when they had two New Year’s Eves, this being the year when they shortened the year by 11 days, and switched the dates of the calendar.

Ends of the year used to mean outbreaks of faux-Scots fever on television, with anyone called Jimmy (Stewart? Shand?) turning into the TV headline act, and with Kenneth McKellar in the mix somewhere. McKellar was a professional Scot, who toured the country and graced the nether regions of the charts with vaguely skirling songs – indeed, he was even the British entrant for the Eurovision Song Contest in the late 1950s, where his bold braw moonlicht voice succeeded in impressing hardly anyone at all. I did actually see him once, about fourth on the bill at the fag end of variety shows. It was 1982. (Top of the bill was Ray Alan and Ray Charles.) There was an odd sense that, just for a day, the Scots knew how to do what the English didn’t: step ye gaily. And drink everyone else under the carpet.

Now we have Jools Holland, and a crowd of pre-recorded celebrities. Is it just me, or does everyone think JH is a hopeless presenter? Everything he puts his hand to turns to schmaltz, except possibly boogie piano, and I am only able to say this because I can’t – much as I would like to – play boogie piano. It may be that there are boogie piano players out there who think he’s not much cop at that, either.

You can see where I’m coming from: fedupness. I find the ends of years profoundly unsettling: another year of under-achievement, even in those years when, as sometimes happens, I have actually achieved something. September is the month I like best, and it feels a long way off. But today, for me, is about tearing up calendars, and feeling time slip away.

My father used to enjoy New Year’s Eve. He used to mkake sure we were awake to watch him step outside the door with some fetishistic objects, which included a lump of coal, and – am I imagining this? – a bag of sugar. And perhaps a bottle. He would solemnly ring the bell, and be let in, and then off we’d go to bed, none the wiser. He was a tall man – over six feet – and one of my abiding images of him is that shadow outside the door. In fact, my father has almost completely passed into shadow now. It may be that New Year’s Eve reminds me a little too much of how little I knew him, which is absurd, because, if he had lived for decades more, I would have known him no better. Unlike my mother, he never adapted to any world other than the one he had constructed around himself. He was immune to small talk. He had passions he didn’t share with children, kind though I suspect he was.

I am beginning to sound like Eeyore, although in the real world, I am more of a Rabbit.