Finding Frank Frail (2)

July 10, 2009

(continued from yesterday…)

My mother’s childhood was spent in the company of the phoney ‘The Last Match’, since her father and mother had it on display, perhaps one of only two Frail mementoes (the other being a pipe that her father’s father had made). She had no idea until two or so years before she died that it was a copy, and she barely saw it between 1958 and 2005 or so, when she asked me to recover it from one of my cousins. (Bizarrely, a valuer rated its worth at £25, when even I can see that it is an unfinished amateur attempt.) Having it in her home was some strange link with her childhood. But she knew nothing else about her father’s uncle, Dick Frail, at all.

But I do. To get this straight, I have to go back to the 1850s, at the end of which two brothers, John and Francis Bernardi, both in their twenties, can be found lodging with an elderly bricklayer called Kemp in Darlington (on the border of Durham and Yorkshire). They are Italian, specifically from a small village in northern Tuscany called Valdottavo. They are both working as engine fitters – although the word ‘plaster’ is added, which implies what is later confirmed – that they were moulders. (As far as I can tell, there are still Bernardis in Valdottavo, which even now has a population of only three figures.) Whether there is any other reason for their arrival in, of all places, Darlington, other than to find work, I don’t know. It is possible that they were refugees: after all, the late 1840s and 1850s were a time of turmoil and revolution, invasion and counter-attack, in what became modern Italy.

By 1863, Francis Bernardi was in Sunderland, where he married Margaret Cowan (from Newcastle originally). They settled in Nile Street, where they had two children, Annie and Tom (Thomas William). Annie was probably born in 1863. She wasn’t registered; or she was mis-registered. This may well have been because the couple did not marry until three or four years after Annie’s birth (they married in 1867). It must have been a tough life, since, on the 1871 census, Francis Bernardi’s occupation is given as ‘none’, just four months after Tom’s birth. By 1881, Francis Bernardi is working as a moulder in a glass works (Sunderland having a strong tradition of glass-making at that time). Two years later, he describes himself as a ‘chimney-piece’ maker.

And now the happiness begins and is eaten almost immediately by tragedy. Annie Bernardi, still only 20, met and married Dick Frail. We don’t know how they met; we don’t know if the fact that the Bernardis were Catholic was of any consequence. It was the summer of 1883 (the year of the Victoria Hall disaster which claimed the lives of over 170 children in Sunderland, and my grandfather’s earliest recollection – he was in a horse-drawn something-or-other, and witnessed, aged three-and-a-half, the distressed crowd of parents). Dick’s brother James and his wife Eleanor, my great-grandparents, had already married, and had their first two children – Ernest, my grandfather and his first sister, Nell. They had already given Ernest up, too. Two children was one too many.

In 1884, Annie [Bernardi] Frail had her first child, Richard. (One side-mystery here is the birth, a couple of months later, of a Margaret Maud Frail in Sunderland, who survived only three and a half years. Whose child was this? James and Eleanor’s? As always with this kind of research, the closer you look, the more you find you have missed.) It seems likely to me that Richard, Annie and their new child lived with one of the sets of grandparents, but this will be almost certainly impossible to prove.

It is the summer of 1885, a year later. Annie Bernardi Frail is pregnant again. By Christmas of that year, she has grown large. It is probable that she did not know she was carrying twins. Early in 1886, she gave birth to two sons: William Pollock Frail and Francis Robert Bernardi Frail. The first child died. And so, aged only 23, did Annie Bernardi Frail. At the age of 25, Dick Frail found himself a widower, with two surviving sons, both infants. Once again, it would have been the grandparents who stepped in, although, from here on, things became more complex. More tomorrow.


More Moon

June 27, 2009

As I recall it, Armstrong stepped out on to the Moon at about 3 a.m., GMT, and my father and I sat up to watch it – a most uncharacteristic thing for him to have done. I suppose, like me, he wanted to say he’d seen it happen (in many ways the fact that we could actually see it seemed at the time almost more extraordinary than the fact that they’d actually managed to land on the surface, even if the world then had to suppress its collective loathing as Nixon, then President, got to talk to the astronauts not long after).

Poor old Armstrong, and his badly rehearsed platitude. You fly hundreds of thousands of miles, and you mess up your welcome speech with a tautology, simply by omitting an indefinite article. Poor old Aldrin, too, going all that way, only to be second. (Poor old Collins, actually, to be flying the craft all that way, but never to step on the surface.)

For some reason, I had to get up early the next day, and go into Sunderland. Why, I cannot imagine. My mother shook me awake and I talked a stream of gibberish about lunar modules, as well I might, coming out of a strange dream. It was the end of an era – the end of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and, lest we forget, TinTin, who had also, courtesy of Herge, been to the moon and explored it.

TinTin beats Armstrong to it

TinTin beats Armstrong to it

I was at the bus-stop as quickly as I could, and stood there waiting for the No. 14 into the town centre. It wasn’t long before I was joined by a woman of advanced years i.e. my age now, carrying a capacious hold-all. A bus-stop is not, in the North East, a place for Trappists. I began to talk to her about the moon, the mission, the meaning, the landing, and so on. She stopped me mid-flow and gestured towards the sky.

‘They divent want to gan up there,’ she said. ‘They’ll put the light out.’

Great x 4 grandfathers

May 26, 2009

We have a lot of great-great-great-great grandparents – sixty-four, unless there are duplicates (i.e. cousins marrying in the recent past – Prince Charles, for instance, has fewer, because both his parents are the great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and that’s just the start of it). So we have, normally, thirty-two great x 4 grandmothers and thirty-two great x 4 grandfathers. I think I can name about twenty-five of my great x 4 grandfathers (I can name all sixteen of the great-great-great-grandfathers). This is what happens when you lead the secret life of a family historian.

Normally speaking, this level of ancestor is out of photo-range (although I have a photographic image, taken late in her life, of one great x 4 grandmother). You might get a picture if you’re very lucky, or Prince Charles, and I’m neither. Honest.

But I have now discovered some words allegedly spoken by – it’s the second time this has happened, even more amazingly – a great-great-great-great-grandfather. Or if you want me to be precise, my father’s father’s father’s mother’s father’s father (that’s the new one – the other is straight up the male line all the way, which is, I am afraid, often the way with family history. The surnames of the women are harder to locate).

The gentleman in question was born in 1764, and his name was William Herring. He is the reason I am called William (I had traced the passage of my name only as far as his son, another William, until last week) – and actually, he was known as Billy Herring, but that’s a coincidence. To my absolute and utter amazement, an exceptionally nice woman called Pam Tate has turned up an edition from 1877 of a magazine called ‘The Alderman’, published in Southwick, a semi-autonomous area of Sunderland (it fought for a century not to be swept up in the town, which pronounces it to rhyme with Mouth-pick, when Southwickers say ‘Suthick’, or ‘Suddick’). The lead story is about my great-great-grandmother’s brother James (keep up at the back), but it refers to his father William and grandfather Billy.

Billy Herring was a landowner and shipowner, and lived to be 92 (oh I hope I have his genes). He was also a sharp-eyed speculator in land, since he managed to purchase fields and ‘closes’ of sand, in about 1810, on the north side of the Wear. Within thirty or forty years, this was land on which shipyards started to spring up (as well as streets). And he was known for being, how shall we put it, fiscally prudent. In about 1800, he purchased a horse and trap, for business and pleasure. He went out with the horse one day, but came back on foot without it. His son, William junior, asked where the horse was.

‘Sold him,’ said Billy Herring.

His son asked him, as you would, ‘Why?’

His answer (offered with ‘impressive solemnity’, according to the article) was: ‘William, he ate meat at nights.’ Sixty or seventy years later, and thirty-five years after Billy Herring’s death, this story was still being repeated in Southwick, as an example of (I guess) extreme fastidiousness for the balance of income and outgoings.

Yes. I am descended from – and named for – a genial old skinflint, who would rather leg it about the place than pay for a horse’s food, but who wasn’t above twitting his son in the process.

What the hell he would have made of my second-hand VW Polo, I do not know. Especially as, after a fashion, he paid for it.

The North-East football nightmare

May 21, 2009

I was lying on my mother’s bed, listening to her radio… No, this isn’t another dip into childhood, it’s just that, when my mother died, one of the things that I inherited was her bed, and not her second-best one, either, and also the radio by which she used to wake up. I find it comforting, although any Freudians out there may be having a field day. The reason it is comforting is that my mum was once fleeced by a bed salesman. It is a massage bed (which I don’t think she ever used) which can be set to ripple and judder at different speeds. Fantastic.

I was there on Monday this week, listening to Sunderland FC getting beaten by Fulham. I would not say I was an obsessive football fan, but I have my hometown team to support. It is not an option, in Sunderland, not to support. It draws colossal crowds (40,000) completely out of proportion to its place in the Football League, which is, more or less, to hover between narrowly escaping relegation and being relegated from the top division, the ‘Premiership’ (a word I loathe. Beneath the ‘Premiership’ is the ‘Championship’. How stupid is that). Sunderland last won the Football League in the 1936, and the FA Cup in 1937, and its second FA Cup win in 1973 is really the only other achievement since then. It is still celebrated wildly.

As per usual, Sunderland is in what the pundits call ‘near the drop zone’, with one game to play. If they had beaten Fulham, they would be safe to struggle another day. But they didn’t. And so, the exquisite agony of being depressed about football is now at its most intense (this is what made Nick Hornby famous as a writer – he nailed, in ‘Fever Pitch’, the way in which football support is an essentially depressive activity. You have to learn to take the rough with the rough).

What makes the end of season especially torturous is that there are four teams who could occupy the two remaining relegation places. They are Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesborough and Hull – i.e., all three of the North-East teams, and one (Hull) which most Midlanders and Southerners think is in the North-East (I had to disabuse the plumber about this the other week), but is actually in Yorkshire (the North Midlands, as far as I’m concerned). Its manager comes from South Shields, however, so there is at least some local connection.

It once happened at the end of a season that three teams – Bristol City, Coventry and Sunderland – were playing on the last day of the season to avoid one remaining relegation place, and to complicate matters, Bristol and Coventry were playing each other. There were nine possible outcomes – Bristol and Coventry drew, or either of them won, while Sunderland won, lost or drew, in each case. (That is nine, I promise.) Eight of the permutations sent Coventry or Bristol down. One sent Sunderland down – if the others drew, and Sunderland lost. And that, of course is what happened (what is more, the other two started late, and were told Sunderland had lost with ten minutes to go, when they were level. That incident has not been forgotten).

But this time, and I can tell you that most of Sunderland has been up poring over these perms and combs intently, it is more complex. Not only are Sunderland up against their local rivals, there is the added complication that two teams – Sunderland and Hull – are facing two of the country’s top three teams. Middlesborough have an easier game. Newcastle have a slightly easier game. But at the moment, Sunderland have one more point than Hull, two more than Newcastle, and four more than Middlesborough. A win is three points; a draw is one. So Middlesborough cannot catch Sunderland. Teams ebding onequal points are then separated by goal difference (goals scored minus goals conceded).


If Middlesborough win by a margin of three goals, Newcastle lose, and Hull lose by a margin of two, Hull and Newcastle go down.

If Middlesborough win and Hull lose, but the difference between their goals is under five, Middlesborough and Newcastle go down.

Middlesborough go down under every other scenario. If Hull win, lose or draw, and Newcastle fail to do any better than Hull, Newcastle also go down. If Newcastle win and Hull draw, Hull go down. If Newcastle draw and Hull lose, Hull go down.

In all the above permutations, Sunderland survive to struggle another day. But … if Hull win and Newcastle win and Sunderland lose or draw, Sunderland go down.

You wouldn’t bet against it.

1937, before calculators were required

1937, before calculators were required

Other people’s stories

April 4, 2009

It often seems to happen to me – as it did last week – that, when I meet a new group of people, once the preliminaries are over, they turn out to have come from Sunderland, to have lived in Sunderland, to have worked in Sunderland, to have visited Sunderland recently, or to have an aged aunt whose best friend is under the illusion that Sunderland is the centre of the known universe. And she may be right.

There are a lot of stories that Wearsiders tell against themselves, although not as many as they tell against people from Newcastle – or South Shields, which is a lesser enemy in the North-East pantheon of villains, but an enemy nonetheless. My father used the phrase ‘All together like the folks of Shields’ in response to any reference, direct or sidelong, to the word ‘together’. I didn’t clock until I was about forty – my problem is having been exiled to boarding schools at an early age, so my consciousness of Sunderland is not all that it should be – that ‘All together like the folks of Shields’ is not intended as a testament to the stout community spirit of North and South Shields, but rather, a calculated suggestion that people from Shields are mean, conniving, and inward-looking.

One of my favourite Sunderland stories concerns an elderly solicitor, who had long since passed the age of retirement, but who was given the privilege of retaining his office (this is the kind of thing that never happens to teachers and doctors, thank goodness, actually), to which he would return on selected afternoons, the better to shuffle some papers around, and to relax in the way that only solicitors can. Perhaps he had the odd estate or trust with which to deal, but continuity was the reason for his visits. Let’s call him Mr. Armstrong (a very common North-East name).

The legal firm for which he worked employed the occasional YOP (person on Youth Opportunities Scheme, or YOPS, hence the singular) in the office, and on this occasion, the YOP was called Denise. Denise was put under the wing of Gladys, who was the secretary who dealt with Mr. Armstrong on the few occasions he needed dealing with. Her duties in respect of Mr. Armstrong were few; in fact, there was only one – to take him a cup of tea. Denise was deputed to take Mr. Armstrong his cup of tea, at the appointed time.

Not long after taking a rickety cup and saucer of the brown stuff in to old Armstrong, Denise re-emerged from his sanctum stealthily and looking a little fraught.

‘Eee, Gladys,’ she said, ‘when I went in to take Mr. Armstrong his cup of tea, he was stretched across his desk. I didn’t know whether he was asleep or dead.’

Gladys looked at Denise carefully. ‘All I can say, pet,’ she said, ‘is that usually he’s just asleep.’

More coats

March 27, 2009

It occurred to me yesterday, while writing about formal coats, how essential an item of clothing a coat was to a teenage boy in the 1960s: not just any old coat, not a formal overcoat, but, very specifically, an army or navy greatcoat, obtained for a cheap price from either a Salvation Army store, or an army and navy surplus store (I cannot tell you if these are still going, but it would have been interesting to see the profit graphs of such shops in 1969-1970. Someone somewhere must have been scratching their head).

I cannot be sure who started this, but I associate it very strongly with the four-piece band Free, who were at the height of their popularity at that time (the hit song “All Right Now” was everywhere – nobody disliked it. In fact, Tony Blair frequently admitted that, if he hadn’t been born into his own body, he’d have liked most of all to have been Paul Rodgers, their singer). Their bass-player, Andy Fraser – and it was his loud and clear bass-lines, quite unlike the more common, modestly background rhythm-section bass-lines, which made their sound distinctive – wore an army greatcoat. Free were very popular in Sunderland, where, beneath the bowling alley in which I had worked as a cleaner, there was a ‘nightclub’ called, very preposterously, the Fillmore North. (If this means nothing to you, The Fillmores East and West were the New York and San Francisco venues most famous at the time for any electric music. Sunderland’s Fillmore had some plastic palm trees, and was very small.)

In fact, Free even recorded a live album (or most of it) in Sunderland. I remember being unable to go, but seeing the long lines of navy-blue, greatcoated young men, very occasionally with a girl in tow, stretching a long way back from the entrance. It may be that they were dressed this way because they all owned the very cheap Island record sampler ‘You Can All Join In”, which made a large number of reputations. It was 13/11, as I remember, or even 13/6 – i.e. 70p. Here’s the cover:

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

At the front are Andy Fraser (second from right) and Paul Rodgers (second from left). Theirs was the look we aspired to. I wonder if the ‘surplus’ shops actually had to put in orders for more surplus, as it were.

There was only one other coat you had to have, and that was an Afghan. Whether the Afghan coats had actually been made in Afghanistan, I have my doubts, but there were always vans selling them at open-air events. The only requirement for an Afghan was that it (a) looked a bit tatty, and (b) smelled as if the goat was still going off.

I am not sure what became of either my greatcoat or my Afghan, which is odd, because I am very, very poor at getting rid of any articles at all, and the greatcoat was made to last at least two hundred years. I doubt I gave them away. Most probably they were surgically removed by a partner, from a wardrobe or a hook, and, just to show that a hoarding instinct is not necessary, I don’t think I’ve noticed that I haven’t got them till now (which raises the awful thought that they might still be stashed in my loft).

The Afghan probably made its own unapologetic exit – it certainly gave the impression that it was still capable of some movement.

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.