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Thursday, 22 February 2007

They Meet At Last


My mum met and became more acquainted with my Dad through the cousin Margaret. (Margaret Gordon I don’t know whether that’s her maiden name or her later married name) She still lived in 14 Ribblesdale and I imagine shared the back bedroom with Doris, leaving the smaller front bedroom for my dad when he returned from one of his voyages. She was a friend of my mum and in a sense was the ‘Go-between’ through which she and my dad came to know each other.

My mum’s sister, Lily remembers our dad then as “…a quiet man, quite the gentleman, who read a lot of books about the sea in Ince Woods.” My uncle Dave remembers the ‘adventures’ and the stories he told about life at sea, the countries he’d been to and the Far East in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Whenever I see a Fred Astaire film, a Humphrey Bogart, I think of out dad.

I know a man of great will. He started as a deck-hand and through sheer hard work and private study worked his way up to becoming a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy. He had a great love of Dickens. He would read chapters at a time to my mother - (well, we didn’t have a TV until the second series of ‘Rin Tin Tin’ - some time in the early sixties) and his conversation would be punctuated be cryptic phrases such as ‘Barkas is willing’ or, after refusing seconds of pudding, ‘I’ve had an elegant sufficiency’. My brother’s nickname was ‘Weller’ - mine less Dickensian, but equally affectionate.

Our bookshelf was dominated by two sets of Charles Dickens,, a set of Harmsworth Encyclopaedias, and a twenty volume collection of ‘The Masterpiece Library of Short Stories’ arranged in countries.

Our dad had one other great passion. Gilbert and Sullivan. He and our mother would sing together over the piano. They tried to inculcate their children with the same filthy stuff! I’m still embarrassed over ‘Tit Willow’.

A recurring feature of great tyrants like Hitler and Stalin is a tendency to sentimentalism. I was in danger of developing into the greatest tyrant of them all, sobbing my heart out at the story of Tit Willow, as sung by Cyril and May Keyton. Cruel and unusual punishment they call it now, I think. Give me the mind of a child until he is seven, the Jesuits said. I still break out into a cold sweat over Tit Willow.

Our dad was also a strong disciplinarian. It came with the time along with his background. Strictly speaking, he was a Victorian with a strong sense of duty, and he married late in life. I remember, via my mum that some in the wider family believed he was making a mistake treating his children as though they were a potentially mutinous crew. He valued honesty above everything and admitting the crime would lessen the punishment. Even so we’d be told to go to the small front bedroom and wait. Then we’d hear his footsteps on the stairs. Punishment involved a leather belt.

His love however was something we realised more fully later in life. He believed that boys needed strong discipline otherwise they would take advantage or go bad.
The worst of it was that there was no over all consistency because he was so often at sea and our mother was much softer, and it was then, I suppose, our father was proved right. We took advantage, though to what extent I can’t remember. Our parents wrote on a daily basis to each other and our ‘sins’ were toted up and held in balance for our dad’s home-coming. A bit like Judgement Day, I suppose. He loved coming home, hated going off to sea. Must have hated punishing us for ‘cold’ crimes we’d committed whilst he was away.

I still remember our mum’s intense excitement, the bright red coat she knew he liked, the bus journey - sometimes taxi - to Liverpool Docks…and the long, long wait on the quayside for the ship to come in. Ships were never punctual, like say a train - though today it might be the other way round. (Sorry Owen )
We were excited, and also scared, wondering what punishments would be exacted…and what presents he’d have for us from the Americas, Africa or from wherever he’d been. On the Georgetown sugar cane run there’d be raw sugar cane, the operative word being cane. We’d gnaw it for all it was worth, trying to convince ourselves that it was better than ice-cream. They were real teeth-breakers leaving only a thin trace of sugar in our mouths for all of our sucking. We much preferred the coconuts.
Once he brought home a Mynah bird that was supposed to talk. But it sat miserably in its cage, every so often emitting a mournful ‘bloop’; and that was what it was called. I still feel bad about it: to be carried away from a colourful rain-forest and end your days in a small terraced house thick in tobacco smoke. But then, ‘worse things happen at sea’ was another of my Dad’s sayings.

There were less controversial presents. There were also the toys. I remember a wonderful mechanical ocean liner with red and green flashing lights. I sailed it across the great grey ocean separating one pavement from another. Another toy I remember was a mechanical ‘Man on the Flying Trapeze’ who did the business whilst a music box in its base gave out a tinny rendition of a popular song of the time: ‘He Sails Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease, that Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.’

In the time honoured phrase, life was much simpler then. A puppet show made from string and balloons created a magic I can remember, but no longer able to understand.

It’s bizarre what the mind chooses to remember. Why out of everything do I remember his disappearing trick that never actually worked though we always believed it might. It was very simple. After some portentous mumbo-jumbo about the mysteries of the orient, he’d place a pale blue satin napkin over our heads. Through its folds we’d be able to see the blurred shadows of our parents…hear our mother saying ‘Don’t do it Cyril. Don’t do it.’ The chanting would continue and then our Dad would say: “This is your last chance, do you really want to disappear…for good. I may not be able to bring you back.” We’d whip those napkins off our heads in a flash. He may have been telling the truth. We never found out.

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