Tuesday, 9 November 2021


It all began with Wilkie's phone call on the eve of my 80th birthday. We reflected on the history of the year group that started to attend Chester-le-Street Grammar School in 1953 and who have kept in touch ever since. Over the years we have shared reminiscences and celebrations of our life stories. Some died tragically young, all met success and adversity. All who remain will be 80 this academic year, and have so much to offer those entering adult life today. The battle is to swim and not to sink into cosy illusions of going along with the crowd. After all, it is the dead fish who swim with the tide.

On the morning of the day itself I enjoyed opening cards and presents, receiving calls from immediate family, and gathering up fallen apples in the autumn sunshine. Just before Mass Arlene, whose birthday is the same day as mine, told the priest, Fr Michael, how old I was, and he handed me a copy of a ten-page document entitled "A Guide to Catholic Funeral Rites in the Diocese of Leeds: Including Instructions for My Funeral Liturgy". That made me chuckle - I had asked for it a while back. I was even more amused when he announced from the altar at the end of Mass - a lovely Mass it was, too - that it was my 80th and that the Guide was available for all. My delight turned to sadness as so many fearful faces, many of them masked, mumbled their personal greetings with downcast eyes. Although the sermon had been about the widow's mite and trusting in the Lord, only Arlene and Fr Michael retained the spirit of joy. Even Sean, who brought us into the Church, and who would always burst into song at the drop of a hat, even he was down, overwhelmed by the pandemic. Later in the day a family quiz took place on Zoom. Here is an attempt at summarising my life story as it emerged from the Quiz questions about 'Mum', 'Grandma', 'my sister', wife etc.

Like all the class at Chester-le-Street Grammar School, I was born during World War II. Those were terrible times. Cities full of civilians were being bombed in night-time air raid attacks. Families, including my own, sheltered underground during those raids, many lost homes and family members, all were issued with gas masks (which I remembered as a child when I was removed from home for three months when my sister was born). Things were far worse in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the tragedy of war ended. What were my parents doing living in London during a 'World War'. Why didn't they just move out? That is a crucial question, and the answer is obvious - my Dad's job was in London. No employment, no income.

So here we have a diversion into the lives of my parents. Both their families had experienced life in the First World War and its aftermath, a period of sadness, sorrow and apprehension that led almost inevitably to further world war. (There are many books written, glorifying and deploring war. Read Warhorse, for example.) At the end of the First World War my mother's family were living in the beautiful city of Salzburg, Austria, home town of Mozart. My father's family lived in dire poverty in the back streets of the industrial city of Leeds. My grandmother died in 1912, at the age of 38 years, when my Dad was seven years old. Both my grandfathers were conscripted into the army, but on opposite sides. Born in 1905, my Dad and his schoolfriends grew into their teens during the years of depression and unemployment that preceded the 'War To End All Wars". They had seen their older brothers going off to war full of optimism. The money to pay them, kit them out and send them off to war, suddenly and mysteriously appeared from nowhere. Some under age - you had to be 16 to go to the trenches - lied about their age, went off to war and were killed. One close friend of my parents, later in life, told of her brother who died in the trenches, leaving his widowed mother and his sister penniless. These were the people who, during the 1930s and 1940s, educated themselves, went into politics and fought for for the Welfare State (health, welfare and education for all).

No comments:

Post a Comment