Out Now!

Saturday, 31 March 2007

The Street

The Power-Station, a medieval castle, the Alamo, a Commando stronghold...depending.

Ribblesdale Avenue with power-station at far end.

This is a picture of May and her sisters Mary and Lily. The woman next to my mother is her friend, Dora. They're walking along Blackpool promanade. For me the picture is all about the sunny optimism of the early 1950's. It brings back the almost magical sense of community I remember as a child. Back doors were always open to children (like cat-flaps today) and the street was like a village with the shared experience of war.

The most important feature of Ribblesdale Avenue was the brick power station at its end. Beyond that was a small haulage yard, a few apple trees and the railway embankment. The power station had a decorative feature on either side of it: red brick protrusions, half and inch thick that allowed us access to the top.
That building was dominated much of our childhood. It doubled up as the Alamo, countless US Cavalry outposts, Spanish galleons, pirate ships, pill boxes against hard faced Germans, or creepily ferocious Japanese.

We never ran out of ammunition for the top of the power station was deeply gravelled and it made excellent grapeshot. Sometimes we would carry up our own stones, when the conflict was serious, the Germans more hard-faced than usual.

Our most usual weapon was the invisible gun - two fingers and a whistling cluck, the invisible rifle, an extended right arm supported by the left and two rigid fingers you sighted down. On each corner of the building were the machine gunners who’d erupt in loud staccato hiccups when the fighting got tough. We saw off Comanche, Apache, Arapaho; Mexicans charging across endless red plains; we saw off rustlers, Confederates, Japanese, SS, the Afrika corp. Our guns were most effective. The other side dying spectacular deaths, only to get up again - after a decent interval - brush themselves down, and continue the fight. It was a child’s Valhalla. When the battle was over we went in for tea.

How did our neighbour cope? They’d just fought world war 11. We were small beer.

When I think of it now, they were remarkable people bound together by remarkable events. All of them had either fought at sea or on land, and those too old to enlist had manned the anti-aircraft guns positioned on the railway embankment close to the street. For years after we scavenged shells, cartridge cases, helmets, gas-masks. Today we have play stations - which everyone knows are really for ‘oldies’ seeking active minds.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Two Ghost Stories

An atmospheric picture in lieu of photos of Uncle Owen and Aunty Pat. I hope it's ghostly enough.

There was, and maybe still is, a great tradition amongst the ‘Parrys’ of naming a son after the father. This in effect transformed the family into a franchise of Robin Hood’s Merry Men with: ‘Big John’ and ‘Little John’, ‘Big Frank and Little Frank’, 'Big Mike and Little Mike',‘Big Dave and Little Dave’, and in the case of Owen, (if you’ve been following closely, and strictly in theoretical terms only) ‘Big Owen’, and ‘Little Owen’ and ‘Very Little Owen’

Very Little Owen (we didn’t really call him that) was my Uncle Owen, the middle son of Owen Parry and Annie (nee Cowley.)

Uncle Owen and his wife Pat lived just off Warbreck Moor, very close to us, and I have very clear memories of my Aunty Pat. I think it needs to be said that very young children recognise a beautiful woman well before all the nonsense of puberty kicks in. My Aunty Pat was beautiful and she died very young leaving two small children. My uncle was distraught, understandably drank a little more than he should, and sometime later took up with another woman who treated the children poorly.

One day she was found at the bottom of the stairs, scared out of her wits and claiming that she’d been pushed. Her account was quite graphic. She’d been walking up the stairway when a woman materialised out of thin air and pushed her down. The first time I heard this story I was sitting under our kitchen table attempting to turn the Liverpool Echo into a Magic Carpet with scissors and some complex origami. I remember closing my eyes, trying to visualise the scene. I wanted to pop out from under the table with a whole series of questions, but wisely stayed put. The general consensus was that it must have been Aunty Pat, coming back to protect her two children, and I remember waving my scissors in glee.
Now this, I confess is a second-hand story, though in a family Celtic through and through accepted as more probable than possible.

My second ghost story is a personal experience - and you can take it or leave it.
I was a student at the time, lodging in 17 High fields Road, Langland, Swansea. It was an interesting place, run by an ex officer in the RAF and his wife with the help of a small hunch-backed lady. Husband and Wife resented the fact that they had to take in students, and their servant was forever trying to explain away their distaste for us.

One night I woke up in pitch darkness, and there was a woman, standing at the foot of my bed. There was no colour to her apart from a generalised whitish glow. I remember easing myself on to my pillow in quiet excitement. There was no fear, just this intense excitement that something inexplicable had just occurred - was occurring - she was still there. The thought crossed my mind that it had to be a dream, so I scratched and pinched myself. Then came the fear that despite all this, in the cold light of day, I might well try and convince myself it was after all a dream. I pulled some hair - kept on staring - and slowly she disappeared. (And no, I hadn’t been drinking that night)

The interesting thing is that she came back a few months later. This time I was at home in Liverpool, and I woke up in the middle of the night to see her standing over me at the side of the bed. Again, no fear - a sense of peace - AND, possibly more significantly, instant recognition. It was the same lady. Don’t ask me how I know. Again I went through the pinching of flesh routine; she faded a little more quickly than previously, but was there long enough for me to be sure I was awake.

I know all the quasi-scientific explanations that can explain most things away, and there are others who’d claim it was my Guardian Angel. People believe what they will whether 'New Age' or 'Materialist'. My only regret is that I haven’t seen her since.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

John Parry, my uncle and Dave’s brother was only 19 years old when he was called up for National Service. Six weeks later he was in Korea, and shortly after that he’d stuck a bayonet in a Korean’s stomach and watched him die still attached to the end of his gun. The war changed him.

My uncle John as a boy was cheerful and sensitive. He came home from Korea subject to mood swings and sudden bursts of temper. As children we only saw his sunny side; the darker moments we heard about later from those who lived with him. What I do know however was that he made my first ‘go cart’ constructed from a plank of wood and pram wheels; when I was older he plied me and my brother with whisky whenever we visited - which was often! It was then, sometimes, that the stories came out and he’d re-live killing his first man.

That story, and the one my Granddad told of his horse, dying on top of him stick in the mind. John’s other stories were equally exciting to boys growing up, but in a strange way they’ve become subsumed by a hundred war films on Korea or Vietnam eg: how the North Koreans would position women in the paddy fields and then place mines around them. The British or American soldiers - convinced that the fields must be safe if women were working there - would walk across them and lose their legs or worse. John came home physically intact.

Friday, 16 March 2007

The Parrys at War

The picture shows Owen Thomas Parry in his engineering works which was situated in Melling, just behind Aintree Racecourse. He underestimated the advantages of new technology and the business went under.

This is a picture of Owen Parry, our grandfather - a young man during the Great War. The horse I think is the one that died as it lay on top of him.

Our great grandfather was Owen Thomas Parry born 1864 and in that same year Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as America’s National Holiday. The two are not necessarily related. Owen Thomas Parry died aged 52 December 16th 1916.

As far as I know, he served in no war, though it must be said great things were happening in the American Civil War the year he was born. Ulysses S Grant and General Sherman were busy marching up and down the eastern seaboard, burning stuff and killing people.

Kit Carson was busy killing Kiowa, but met his match with the Comanche.

General John Sedgwick was shot and killed by a confederate sharpshooter during fighting at Spotsylvania, Va. His last words before getting hit were "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Europe had a war, one peculiar to itself, over Schleswig Holstein, most easily pronounced when drunk or when suffering from a cold. Lord Palmerston, our Prime Minister summed it up. ‘There were only three people who ever understood Schleswig Holstein: King Frederick of Prussia, a German professor, and myself. King Frederick is dead. The Professor is half mad, and I have forgotten it.'

So back to America.

Colonel John M. Chivington, attacked an unsuspecting village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians camped on Sand Creek and killed some 300 Indians including women and children, many of whose bodies were mutilated.

General George Armstrong Custer married Elizabeth Bacon in 1864 and died at the battle of Little Big Horn when our great grandfather was twelve.

In Europe too exciting things were happening.
Charing Cross Station opened in London and in the Netherlands Gerard Adriaan Heineken founded a beer brewery. In 2002 it was the world’s 3rd largest.

I think, what a great time to be alive. I grew up loving the myth of the 'wild west' especially as whenI grew older I discovered the reality wasn' t much different! The problem, I suppose was the price that was paid. I think we have an ancestor who lost his leg at Fort Pickens - wherever that was. So, I don't know whether our great grandfather ever fought in a war. I hope he didn't. His son and grandson did.

When Owen Thomas Parry died, his son, Owen Parry was serving in the Artillery in World War I. I haven’t yet found out whether he was home for the death of his father, or he got a telegram, which would have been unusual, because it was usually the other way round.

Owen Parry, our grandfather told many stories of life in the trenches, none of them pleasant. There are two that stick in the mind one of which continued to upset him many years later. He was holding his horse by the reins, quietening him as the shells whistled past. The next moment a shell hit the horse knocking it over on top of my granddad. He was trapped, unable to move, still holding on to the horse’s neck. What upset my grandfather (and me when I think of it) was the horse’s eye, inches from his own, looking at him, its light fading as it slowly died.

It’s a small example of how the personal becomes tragedy as opposed to statistics - or the unknown. I have one particular example. When he was clambering over his trench something wet and sticky slapped across his face. Instinctively his hand went up to rub it off only to find it was flesh and skin - someone else’s.

Good boots were in short supply and German boots were noted for their quality. Soldiers saw nothing wrong in taking the boots from a dead German, though it became unpleasantly surreal when there was only a leg, the rest of the body having been pulverised by shrapnel or shell.

Our granddad's final battle war was terminal. He didn't want to go and put up a damned good fight. He'd outlived two pacemakers - didn't mind the operations but hated the hospitals and the petty indignities. He hated the bed-pan, much preferring the toilet. One night he caused a degree of mayhem. The problem he had to solve, was this. He was wired up to various monitors assessing various bodily functions. It was the middle of the night. Very patiently he 'numbered'his body with a ball point pen, each number corresponding to something specific attached to his body. The idea was that he would be able to re-attach the wires to the correct place when he returned from the toilet. When the job was done he tore off the wires and leapt out of bed in an old man's version of 'The Great Escape'. Alarms sounded and he was caught, much to his indignation, halfway down the ward.

I grew up knowing a cheerful, feisty, possibly wilful but always generous old man. I know there was a darker side, but it's not my job to tell that story.

I'll finish the topic tomorrow with the story of John Parry and the war in Korea.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Warbreck Moor

Warbreck Moor and two more to follow. I loved the skyline, now with knowledge, then because it seemed strange. I loved red brick.

The corner of Wyresdale. To the left Shaws the Chemist, now Bargin Booze (sic) To the right Taylors the Breadshop, now something else. I used to daydream as to who lived under the spire.

This picture of Easbourne Road is way before my time...honest. But it hasn't changed that much. The Wesleyan church has unfortunately been knocked down and replaced by some small town houses - with unadventurous roofs.

I had my first hallucinogenic experience when I was about seven. It was at the dentist’s. I remember his eyes staring down at me, a black rubbery mask-like thing put over my mouth and nose and a stern voice telling me to breathe in deeply. The next thing I remember is being a large, furry bat flying down a long black tunnel that was too small for me. I’m telling you, being a claustrophobic bat is not a nice experience, but having said that, it prepared me for the sixties and seventies. I woke up with a dry throat and a bloody mouth.

The dentist was inappropriately named, Mr Friendly, he smelled of antiseptic, and his drill was the size of a small power tool that could have tackled concrete. The first time he inspected my mouth was when I was about five. I bit his finger and ran out the surgery, past my mum in the waiting room. Within moments I was tearing across a main road, (Warbreck Moor) and was someway down Wyresdale Road before my mother caught me. I was taken back to Mr Friendly and my lessons in dentistry continued.

If I was to freeze-frame just one moment and try to recapture what Warbreck Moor was like in the 1950’s and 60’s, you’d have to imagine me tugging against my mother’s hand and staring back at the road I’d just crossed. The road is still there but the shops and small village atmosphere have now entirely gone.

Directly opposite me was a small patch of grass called Baker’s field where the green No. 2 and No. 30 buses would stop and take us to town. Occasionally a red Ribble bus would pass, coming from such obscure far- away places as Blackpool, Preston, or Ormskirk. Just to the right of the field were four shops. Mangells was a greengrocers shop with wooden floorboards and a perpetually stale and rotten smell. At the back of the shop was large barrel of vinegar with a tap. You bought your own bottles and it was filled up for a penny. There was also a metal bucket in which he kept his beetroot. We never bought his beetroot and this was largely due to my grandmother. She worked in the shop part time and when she needed to go to the toilet, was directed to the metal bucket. Whether there were beetroot in it at the time, or she had to first take them out, she didn’t say.

Next door was a Newsagent, Ruddocks - the centre of much gossip which continued unchanged when it was sold and renamed as Gordons. Next to that was an off-license, and then, on the corner of Wyresdale Road, Shaw’s the chemist.

In an age now of chain store pharmacies, it is hard to recapture the prestige and respect local chemists once enjoyed. His word was law and followed to the letter. Mind you, I’ve never forgiven him for prescribing Friar’s Balsam. It was a foul yellowish liquid that you could rub on your chest, or drink in hot water. It tasted of sugar and sulphur and left a yellowish stain on wherever it landed. It was supposed to cure most things - along the lines of Elias Ashmole’s cure for asthma: swallow a young frog wrapped in muslin. (it’s slime presumably lubricated your throat before being pulled out). Confronted with the frog or Friar’s Balsam, recovery was swift, almost miraculous.

Crossing Wyresdale you had Tailors the baker, Albert the greengrocer and Dave the butcher. The shops were punctuated by a harsh redbrick Methodist church which had a great roof for climbing on…in search of God. Then, on the corner of Eastbourne Road: another newsagent, Robertsons, a fish and chip shop, a haberdashery and finally Moses a small, slightly more expensive bakery. Just to the right of the door as you came in were large sacks of dog biscuits. To a five year old they were just biscuits and I grew to like the taste, until my mother found out and stopped me.
And that’s it, the known world to a five year old who hated the dentist.

Friday, 9 March 2007

"Uncle" Dave

The handsome fellow in the cap is me. The boy behind me is my uncle Dave, now the patriarch of the family, then a ten year old boy. We’re sitting in the garden of 24 Helsby Road. As a child I found this place both warm and magical. They had a dog for one. Towser. We weren’t allowed dogs, or cats. But we got our revenge by inflicting upon our mum a never ending variety of rabbits (more about them later) mice, hamsters and guinea pigs, some of them albino. Then there were the frogs. Personally, I think she’d have been better of with just a dog and have had done with it.

Not only did he have a dog, our grandfather also kept canaries and budgerigars in a hand-made aviary at the back of the garden. As I said, 24 Helsby was magical.
I can imagine my children’s faces if they stepped back in time and saw a large wooden table inclined like a ski slope. The legs furthest away would be pressing down on tin plates which in turn were pressing down on meat salvaged from cows’ tongue or pigs’ head. Tongue or brawn is rarely seen now days, but it tasted alright. Better than a ‘chicken nugget’ or a ‘Turkey Twizzler’.

I have a strong, intensely visual memory of their kitchen with its deep red quarry tiles and the black cast iron range. The best way to describe a cast iron range is to see it as an open plan Aga cooker. A fire blazed, heating small ovens to either side of it. The room was dominated by a large wooden table - usually in a horizontal position.

I remember one Christmas and one particular cheese. Why does the mind play these tricks? Why, out of a thousand thousand memories do just a few stick out? As I’m writing this the answer becomes apparent. Mine are largely to do with food. I shall brandish the exceptions when they come. Anyway this was a large block of red Leicester cheese. It looked so good, and I wanted to eat it, and I was too polite to ask and then my dad looked at his watch and said we had to go, and I’m banging my head against the keyboard now, still salivating over that cheese. Yes, I’ve bought red Leicester since, but none of it tasted like that cheese would have done.
I was a toddler then and too bloody polite if you ask me. Politeness was prized, but what about the cheese?

I’ve heard since that not all was light and laughter at 24 Helsby, but to a small child, it seemed so - especially playing with my ‘uncles’ Dave and John. They must have been very tolerant.

Dave can talk the hind-legs of a regiment of donkeys, and sell them back again. He's also one of the funniest men I know. However for a ‘Patriarch’ he lacks gravitas and the obligatory white beard.

He remembers, as a boy, having a ‘vegetable round’, delivering fruit and vegetables balanced in a large iron basket welded to the front of the bike. He likes his food, too, often nibbling away at what then were quite exotic and expensive fruit. Unfortunately his life of crime was unexpectedly cut short when a customer weighed her produce and found it significantly less than she’d paid for.

Albert, the greengrocer was a frightening man with watery blue eyes and a big red face. He wore industrial strength pullovers, or tweed jackets that often looked too small for him. As I said, he frightened me as a child, but he had a soft spot for my uncle. Even as a boy, Dave was entrusted to haggle and buy fresh fruit and veg from the market for the shop. There’s more to life than school.

I remember him barely into his teens making toffee apples in our grandmother’s sink and selling them from a battered old van. Later as a manager of a shoe shop in the centre of Liverpool, later still as a man who bought a large house cheaply and rented out the rooms, whilst he and my ‘auntie’ Carol lived on the ground-floor pretending to be tenants like everyone else. I remember helping him shift some boxes in his ‘new’ house. I was sweating like a pig, and he handed be a tumbler of water which turned out to be neat cointreau. It’s beautiful stuff, sipped. Gulped down it’s like napalm.

I would guess that his favourite job - though he had his moments in the shoe shop - was working for the museum carrying and exhibits back and forth and talking to landed gentry and owners of stately homes as though they were his equals - something they appreciated - or at least he says they did.

Dave should be retired now, but I doubt if he’ll ever do that. He’s be working out how to make money from his funeral.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Things learnt too late

A picture of my mother. The baby is me pondering over the implications of that letter my dad sent me

Courage - Duty - guilt.

In later life our dad was crippled by a stroke and spent his last ten years imprisoned in an armchair, unable to speak except in an incoherent mumble only my mum could understand. She cared for him as she’d cared for everyone throughout her life. He was struck down when I was University. When I was home I never helped as much as I should have done. It might have been ‘a man thing’ or the selfishness of someone who for the first time in his life was enjoying the first fruits of independence and wanted to give none of it back. Basically it was selfishness. You learn from it and hope that Karma is more generous.


It is easy to remember walking into the living room, seeing the battered black armchair close to the fire and, from its back, seeing my dad’s square-ish head. It was neatly combed in the morning but as the day went on it became more unruly; the hair would be in tufts, sticking out from over the top of the chair. Now I would love few things better than to be able to stroke that head, show him some of the affection I wasn’t able to show him when I was young.


That kicked in when we hit our teens. We learnt to lie, to evade, obscuring one truth with another more palatable. It is easy to lie when the alternative is a grey life in doors at the time Liverpool was ‘the centre of the universe’ (Alan Ginsberg’s line not mine) The world was exploding, or so it seemed, and we wanted more freedom than our parents were willing to give. A little deceit goes along way.

It also has its downside. When he returned from sea, our dad would bring with him a great box of American comics. He hid them in a cupboard in the front room and every Sunday afternoon would give us one each to read.

The problem arose when we discovered where they were hidden. It was like discovering treasure, a large cardboard box, brimming over with comics. We waited until the house was empty and read them all in an orgy of self indulgence. OK we didn’t know what an orgy was. This was as good as it got for a twelve year old in the late 1950’s. Only orgies, we discovered, had consequences. Our dad continued to dole out the comics on subsequent Sundays, and every Sunday we hid our guilt beneath pretended delight. It was hard at first, but got easier. That’s the problem. Deceit feeds on deceit.

The power of words.

I was a gluttonous reader and collected books like stamps. Sometimes my dad would bring home a book or two from the ship’s library, which was good. The problem lay in reciprocation. He expressed the intention of taking some of ‘my’ books to the ship in exchange. I refused. The books he had in his hand were part of a set I’d been collecting for some time (For the older geek ‘The Saint’ by Leslie Charteris) Our dad ruled the house with a rod of iron, but ‘property rights’ were ‘property rights’. In frustration he slammed the books down on the table and called me as ‘mean as cat-shit’. I’ve often puzzled over that particular metaphor:
Would dog-shit have meant I was marginally more generous? Or Rabbit shit - its tiny glistening balls, maybe signifying the timidly mean, elephant shit, the carelessly mean. But no, he chose cat-shit, and cat-shit has no qualifiers. There’s nothing good about it. It’s mean.

It was a fair call. I struggle to be generous. It’s peculiar the things you remember, but those words have acted as a spur ever since.


We knew he loved us. It was something we were told. But it was something that was never openly expressed. Part of it was a generational thing, more so with our dad because he was a deeply reserved person. It may also have had something to do with war. In our Grand-dad’s case, the First World War, for our dad, World War 11. There were no post war syndromes or traumas recognised or counselled. Peace came and you got on with it. Problems and memories you dealt with on your own. Husbands sometimes came back as strangers. No one was unaffected.

Our dad had been in the thick of it, he’d been on the convoys, been on the Murmansk run, escaped torpedoes and had come back unscathed. It might have made him more prone to sternness and duty, less tolerant of ‘weakness.’ Looking back I’m more aware of discipline, sometimes fear rather than any great sense of ease.
When I went off to University, he insisted on carrying my suitcase to the bus stop and he shook my hand. That’s the only tactile experience I can remember. I heard afterwards he came home restless and occupied himself by painting a bedroom that didn’t need painting.


What I couldn't do as a child - learning to like myself - to the extreme of complacency, Thomas, my son would say derisively.


That in time Thomas and Frances will remember all my faults but hopefully remember me hugging them. I think, on balance, I’d rather be mocked than feared - or maybe I’m just learning to live with it!