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Monday 13 May 2024

The Village

Village Dance Class, 1930s.
My mother (top, 3rd from right) is one of four cousins in the picture.
She would have been 100 years old today.

“It was a lovely place to grow up”, said Aunty Olga the last time we spoke. “The best anyone could want”. She talked of a High Street with no motor vehicles to stop you playing in the road, all the relations living nearby, and how everyone knew each other and were friends. There were shops with all you could want, and clubs and groups and things to do. The buses ran late so you could get back from the pictures in town. “Not like now”. 

“Aunty” Olga. We called them all “Aunty” or “Uncle", or if they were the same age as us “cousins”, no matter whether they were really great aunts, great uncles, second cousins, half-cousins, cousins once removed, or some other combination. It was simpler. There were loads of them. “Your mother was more of a sister than a cousin to me”, Aunty Olga said. 

I caught it right at the end, and don’t doubt her. I fetched milk from the farm dairy and talked to the pig in the butcher’s sty. I bought pop from the sweet shop, chips from the fish shop, rolls of gun caps for my cowboy pistol and foreign stamps for my collection near The Green. I marvelled at the old village water pump near the church and walked on my own the three-quarters of a mile along the river bank to my aunt’s smallholding at the ferry houses. I knew the local names that appeared on few maps: Gander’ill; Cock’orner; Cuckoo Park. 

A walk down the High Street with my grandma meant talking to everyone we passed. 

“Who was that?”  
“My cousin.”  
“And who was that?” 
“He’s my cousin too.” 

“How many cousins have you got?” 

I’d wish I’d not asked. 

“Well, there was Aunty Bina who had Blanche, Tom, Gladys, Lena, Olga, Fred, Ena, Dolly, Albert and Jack. She brought up our Jean as well, although her mother was really Ena. They had fish and chip shops all over.”

“Then there was Aunty Annie who married Uncle George, and had Mary, Fred, and Bessie.” She pointed to ‘M, F, and B’, scratched long ago into the bricks of number 88 (still visible today). 

“Do you mean Aunty Mary?” I asked. Aunty Mary had the prettiest face I’d ever seen. 

If Grandma was in the mood, she would go on to list the millions of children of uncles Fred, Bill and Horner, who had moved away to run a paper mill in Lancashire.  

All were prefixed “our”: our Fred, our Bessie, and our Mary. Aunty Olga’s children were our Linda, our Sandra, and our Gillian. It distinguished them from Aunts and Uncles who were not relatives at all, such as Aunty Annie ’agyard (3 syllables). What funny names some had. 

And that was only one of Grandma’s sides. The other was worse. 

Even more confusing, my mother’s Great Aunty Bina was married to my dad’s grandpa’s cousin, which meant I was doubly related to Blanche, Tom, Gladys, and the rest. 

I heard it so often I could recite it to my wife decades later: “Blanche, Gladys, Ena, Lena, Gina, Dolly, Molly, Mary, Bessie, Ella, Olga, Linda...”

“They sound like a herd of Uncle Bill’s cows,” she said. 

Uncle Bill (don’t ask), was from across the river and had married into the family. He said that if the Blue Line bus had not started running through the village, they would have all been imbeciles because of inbreeding. 

I went less and less as I grew into my teens, not realising it was coming to an end. It would never be the same again.  

Monday 6 May 2024

Marie Tidball

I find it astonishing how some overcome illnesses, difficulties, and barriers that to me would seem overwhelming. 

I think of a student on the university course I took. He had brittle bone disease, and at one time or another had broken just about every bone in his body. Despite the small stature and deformities that often go with the condition, he lived independently in the university halls of residence. He travelled in each day in his three-wheeled Invacar, and moved from class to class in a wheelchair, with books and notes hanging in a plastic carrier bag from the rear handles. We took turns to push. He always had a cheery smile. 

Later, there was Mahir who had muscular dystrophy. He had arrived in England in his early teens as a Bosnian refugee, speaking no English. By then, he had lost the ability to walk, which in Bosnia had excluded him from school. Once here, he did well enough to go to university, and enrolled on the course I ran. He struggled to control his limbs, used an electric wheelchair, and was accompanied everywhere, even to the toilet, by Brian, a full-time paid assistant. What incredible dedication that must have required. 

When you had a bit of a cold or headache, and looked out at the weather in the morning and it seemed tempting to crawl back to bed, the thought that Julian or Mahir would be there shamed you into getting up and going in. 

I came across Brian a few years later, looking after another special needs student. He said he’d heard that Mahir had died, still in his twenties. Julian did not have a long life, either, but lived into his forties. 

Recently, we came across another inspirational figure, Marie Tidball. She was born with multiple physical difficulties, including no hands. It was unclear whether she would live. She did, but missed years of school through medical treatments, such as surgery to enable her to walk. She has just one finger. From school in Penistone, Yorkshire, she won a place at the University of Oxford where she got a degree in Law and a Doctorate in Criminology, and has since worked as a legal researcher, disability rights campaigner, and local councillor. She has now been selected as a Parliamentary candidate for her home constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge at the next General Election. Our ceilidh band played at the launch of her fundraising campaign.  

Going by last week’s local election results, she is almost certain to be elected, and will quickly make an impression as a Member of Parliament, not because of her difficulties but because she is every bit the fiery, determined woman her story suggests. You heard of her here first. 

“I learned there was no such word as ‘can’t’ and that you have to go out in the world and develop your own skills to use them for others.”   

So, let’s have no more whingeing and procrastinating. Just get on with it.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Paul McCartney’s RAM

New Month Old Post: first posted 7th November 2018

We can be very dismissive when young, especially about music. 

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school class where everyone has to join in banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? Why was she accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed?

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, didn’t I have more sophisticated tastes? Didn’t I think of myself as a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung? How could the McCartneys’ frivolous, inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I recently looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

It has been described as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable life, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.