My Grandad was one of a dying breed of people, kind, caring, charitable, funny and a fountain of knowledge he was only too happy to share when asked. My recent post about old drivers prompted me to finish this piece about a very important person in my life, one of the few people I had a lot of respect for.
In bed at night I read for a while, turn off the light and fall asleep thinking of about how the next chapter of my novel will pan out, but recently I’ve given a lot of thought about how to write about my Grandad. I actually started this post several weeks ago but stuck it in drafts because I couldn’t work out how to sum up his life and my feelings for him in such a short space.
In truth I could write a good book about him, more than one I suspect, and maybe one day I will, in the meantime I hope this post will do justice to a man who I consider to be one of the most sincere, honest and loving people I have ever known. Apologies in advance, it is rather long and I don’t have my usual array of photos.
My Grandad, Herbert – or Bert to his friends, was born in 1920. He never really told me much about what he did in World War 2, but I got the feeling he didn’t want to share his experiences, maybe that kind of emotional depth was something he didn’t want to relive. I’ve heard the story about how he and my Nan met many times, and how he said to his mother: “Mom, one day I’m going to marry her.” It seems back in the olden days, well, the 40’s anyway, when two people got married they understood the true meaning of “for better for worse” and a life long commitment was not taken lightly.
Aside from the dark times when my parents divorced, I had a happy childhood, and a significant part of that was due to the impact my Grandparents had on me and my sisters life. We spent holidays together, both in the UK and abroad and saw them on a weekly basis. I can’t document every facet of my Grandad’s life so I’ll talk about how I remember him.
My Grandparents lived on a nice estate, nothing special, decent houses, quiet streets, nice. They were fortunate to have a decent sized back garden, half of which was used by my Grandad to grow vegetables. I doubt if I’ll ever see such a well-tended and cared for veg patch. I’ve seen plenty of gardening programs on TV where the “expert” teaches their audience how to grow stuff, special tricks of the trade and all that stuff. Some of it is useful but when I think about my Grandad’s approach there’s no comparison.
He knew his stuff better than most. At times I believed the reason why he could grow such amazingly tasty food was because he was in touch with the plants, he understood how they worked. I’d step into his greenhouse and my mouth would start watering, the ripe tomatoes were insanely tasty! He grew all sorts, onions, leaks, peas, runner beans, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, radishes, potatoes and succulent strawberries!
There was a solemn element to him when he was in the garden. I’d watch him from the window as he tended to every leaf and every bud with patience and grace.
I remember spending the weekends at my Grandparent’s. On Sunday mornings we’d make a trip to the swimming pool, and without fail my Grandad would manage to sneak up to me under the water, like a silent crocodile, and thrust a sudden foot into my face! Wet and happy we’d head home where a mug of Bovril would be waiting, heaven! Sunday lunch was a wonderful affair, gorgeous smells, steamy kitchen, home-grown veg never tasted so good, and it hasn’t since those days.
Sunday afternoons were funny, my Grandad would fall asleep in his armchair, mouth open, snoring away whilst we watched the TV, Bullseye and The A-Team, marvellous!
My Grandparents owned a holiday home, sounds quite lavish but it wasn’t as grand as you think. On the River Severn, in a huge field, a few dozen of these holiday homes had been built as a country retreat for people to enjoy peace and quiet. The chalets, or bungalows, came in all different shapes and sizes, single story buildings made out of wood, raised off the ground on concrete blocks just in case the river flooded. They didn’t have electricity or running water when I was a young kid, but I think they do now.
Making the trip to the “Bung” felt like a huge ordeal, a long tiresome trip, which probably only took no more than a couple of hours in reality. But it was worth it! We’d haul a huge wagon across the field with our bags, food and batteries in it, then take it to a tap in the centre of the field and fill huge plastic containers with water. Rain water was collected for washing but I don’t remember there being a bath…there must have been, bath time clearly wasn’t much of a memorable event for a young lad!
We often spent the summer holiday at the Bung, long summer days walking along the river, fishing, hiking through the woods, camping out, poking through the caves, building dens and enjoying all the things that kids these days don’t have a clue about. Thinking about it now it seems like such an old-fashioned way to spend your summer – no video games, no cars, no music unless you had a Walkman (yes the one with the tape!) and no TV either.
Actually that’s a lie. We did have a TV at the Bung. It was a tiny black and white thing. Under the building was a platform that had a whole range of car batteries on it. These powered the lamps and the tiny fridge. Sometimes we’d be watching the TV and the picture would start to shrink and fade because the batteries were running low. Imagine that today! Unthinkable! Back then it was just another fun aspect of being away from the modern world.
To sum up my time at the Bung, I’d have to say it was an idyllic place where every day was a new adventure. I miss hearing the put-put-put sound of the petrol power lawn mower as my Grandad made his way around the Bung. I miss trekking across the fields by the river with my Grandparents and my dad, hot sun, flies, boats on the river with people waving, and at the end of the long walk…a river side pub, bottles of Vimto and cheese and onion crisps as a reward.
Our long walks through the fields and woods were times when my Grandad would talk about all the plants and flowers, explaining what they were and how you could use them, which ones were poisonous and which were edible. Indeed my sister and I were a little cautious when told if we chewed on a certain leaf it tasted like other foods. He was right too, there are plenty of edible leaves around.
Both my dad and my Grandad were avid wine makers, in fact my dad had made some amazing wine that rivals the cheap junk you buy at the store. They would make wine out of anything and everything, apples, pears, elderflower, elderberry, you name it. I remember one particular scrumping trip I went on with my Grandad, the one where the large branch hit me on the head so hard it knocked me onto the ground from the weight. The idea was simple, we’d scramble through the undergrowth then my Grandad would shake the tree and we’d gather up the apples.
The branch that hit me must have been dead wood. I know it hurt like hell. My Grandad might have been old but he could move pretty damn fast when he needed to. I’d barely had chance to cry out and he was there, shoving the branch aside and scooping me up off the ground, checking my head and hugging me. I was okay with just a big bump to show for my efforts, oh, not to mention the mass of apples we used for the wine!
When I was around 17 I spent a lot of time with my Grandad mowing lawns. My Grandparents had been a big part of the local Pensioners Club until it closed. But they stayed in touch with their friends and my Grandad would visit many of them and tend to their gardens. I have happy memories of pushing the mower up and down while my Grandad chatted away with his friends, drank tea and ate a biscuit or two. When they paid him for his time he would slip me a £5 or £10 note for my hard work but in truth I would have done it for free.
Around that time he started having problems with his stomach or bowels, I wasn’t really sure. He’d make light of it even though I can now see he was in considerable pain. We’d tour around the old folks and work magic on their gardens, they really did look amazing when it was done, beautiful lines on the lawn, weeds removed, borders tended to, lawn edged and rubbish taken away.
Often my Grandad would take me out on a driving lesson. It’s funny because I was never nervous with him unlike when in the driving instructors car. My Grandad was patient and offered good advice, especially when it came to backing up, I hated reversing at the time!
On Sunday’s we’d find an empty car park, remember when Sunday’s meant shops were closed? He would show me how to reverse into an empty parking bay then pull out, move along and back into another. I can still smell the interior of his Maxi, a sharp plastic and wood smell with a tinge of soil and tomatoes. Wish the car I drove smelled like that! It was a reassuring, solid smell.
It’s funny how we remember some things so clearly where other memories fade. I can remember every moment of the time I spent with my Grandad when we were cutting grass.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk about this as it might gross some people out, but I figure what the hell, my Grandad deserves to have his party trick shared! I don’t remember the reasons why but at some point he had an operation that removed the chunk of cartilage in his nose. This meant that he could push his nose flat against his face, a strange sight to see.
Sometimes when something tickled his funny bone, he would take off his glasses and push one of the arms into a nostril and out of the other one, then let his glasses dangle from his face!
My Nan would always tell him off but my sister and I would fall about laughing!
No one else’s Grandad could do that!
Ow Bin Ya?
My Grandparents come from the West Midlands, more specifically the Black Country. This title was earned due to the industrial revolution and the amount of soot that covered the buildings from coal-burning and coking. Most of us know and recognise different accents, in the US the New York accent is different to that of Texas for example. Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English all have their own distinct flavours, and within those are the regional accents. We know the London cockney accent, Liverpool, Cornwall, Birmingham etc.
What many don’t know is the vast array of accents in the West Midlands and in particular that of the Black Country, or more precisely the language used. The Black Country dialect is a wonderful thing to hear, the way words are changed and spoken sounds almost as if it’s being said backwards!
When my Grandad talked in this dialect I was amazed, I loved to hear how these words rolled off his tongue as if he were speaking a foreign language. And on occasion I got to hear him talk to his friends in this way, and I would stare at them understanding about 1% of what they said! Things like this:
“Ow am yow?” – Translates to: “How are you?”
“Where bin ya?” – Translates to: “Where have you been?”
“Bay too bah.” – Translates to: “I’m not too bad.”
“Yo ay arf saft.” – Translates to: “You’re very silly.”
“Yo dow arfmek milloff.” – Translates to: “You don’t half make me laugh.”
“If you’re stupid enough to come down here on your way home, your tea will be spoilt.”
Which basically means that the road ahead is pretty busy so by the time you get home your evening meal will be cold and probably in the dog.
Aside from a number of books and websites about this amazing language you can even buy The Old Testament – In the Dialect of the Black Country. I remember reading a copy when I was younger and it really was like reading a new language. If you want a strange and quirky present for someone I totally suggest you get them this just to see the expression on their face as they try to read it!
It’s worth noting that the change of the word ASK to AKS which has been used in recent media, is not a new thing but originates in the Black Country.
I’ve not lived in the West Midlands for about 12 years now and as such my accent has softened considerably, noticed by many of my friends, with the exception of one who is from Birmingham and can recognise the occasional twang in my voice. I refuse to pronounce it Barth, Parth, Glarse etc. It is Bath, Path and Glass. I will not agree that the Queen’s English is the only proper English since very few people speak like her.
However, when I speak to my Nan or my dad on the phone I am very aware of slipping back into that dialect, instead of agreeing with “Oh yes” I tend to say “Oh ar” and instead of “You’re not” I used “Yo ay” and it’s kinda nice to feel those seldom spoken words rolling out.
One memory I value above many is how people greeted my Grandad with: “Ow bin ya, Bert?” And the goodbye which consisted of: “Keep art the ossrode.”
I moved into a flat when I was 18. It didn’t have any heating and the first winter there brought me a nice dose of the flu. That’s the only time I’ve ever had the flu and I don’t want it again. I had a little portable hot air heater, several layers of clothing, a sleeping bag and a duvet over me but I still felt like death. I managed to get to the phone box in the street and phoned my Nan to ask her what my symptoms meant. She told me to stay warm, take pills and get hot drinks inside me.
About an hour later they were knocking on my door. My Nan was fussing around and I insisted I would be okay. But my Grandad wouldn’t have any of it. He told me I was to come with them and stay at their house until I was better. No if’s, no buts. I was going and that was the end of the discussion.
I’m sorry, I can’t remember dates very well and my Grandad was in and out of hospital a number of times. On one particular occasion my dad, my sister and her boyfriend at the time, and myself were visiting my Grandad. He looked quite bad but had a smile on his face. We talked and laughed, the usual stuff you do when visiting someone in hospital.
We were talking about the drip stuck in my Grandad’s arm and the bag of liquid saline stuff on the stand next to his bed. It was running low. My Grandad made a comment about it being swapped over soon, and he hoped it would be something tasty like roast beef and gravy. My sister’s boyfriend didn’t get the joke and assumed that was indeed what would happen, a drip that tasted of yummy roast dinner.
Even now that raises a smile when I think about his puzzled expression as he looks from the drip to my Grandad’s sly smirk and back to the drip.
The Worst Night.
When my mother died when I was about 19, I remember crying. She had been an absent mother. I’m sure my sister might see things differently. Whilst I got on well with her my relationship was not like that of my friends, how could it be when she left when we very young? I have never told anyone this before but that night when my Grandad died I thought I would never be as upset and distraught ever again. I was numb. In my late teens I had several bouts of insomnia and for weeks after that night I barely slept.
I remember getting a phone call from someone, I can’t remember who, maybe my Nan. They were trying to find my dad who was in a pub not far from my flat. I called the pub and spoke to him. Things were urgent and he arrived at my flat in minutes. We walked to his house and because he had been drinking I drove us both to the hospital. I wanted to drive fast, to get to my Grandad before something bad happened. But it would have been so much worse had the police stopped us. So I stayed within the speed limit even though I wanted to tear through the dark streets as fast as I could.
At first we couldn’t get in, the main entrance was closed so we had to walk around to another one. My Nan tripped on a curb and fell over, someone helped her up, I don’t remember who.
The nurses ushered us inside and we made our way through the half-lit corridors, as quietly and quickly as possible. We were too late to say goodbye. My Grandad had died not long before we got there. I don’t know where this came from or who told me but I remember someone telling me that he had said something along the lines of: “Let me go” or “I want to go now.” Maybe he said that to a nurse, I don’t know. It could be that I imagined it.
My dad, Nan, sister, step-mom and me were there, someone else too, I don’t remember who. My dad was crying like I’d never seem him do before. We said our goodbyes and I kissed my Grandad on the cheek. He looked asleep and it felt as if anything might wake him up. But he wasn’t snoring with his mouth open.
My dad stayed the night with my Nan and my step-mom drove me home. I remember being alone in my flat thinking that a few hours ago my Grandad was alive. I cried most of that night and tried to ignore that horrible cold hollow feeling in my chest. I’ve not felt that sensation as deep or for as long since then, and even though I know I will again…Jesus, I don’t want to.
I didn’t cry at his funeral. I’m not a public crier. I prefer to keep my emotions under wraps until I can take time to deal with them in my own space. One thing that got to me was when they carried my Grandad inside the church and my Nan placed a hand on his coffin, as if to say one last goodbye. Man that caught me off guard, sucked all the air out of my lungs and robbed me of my energy.
Reliving that night right now is painful. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve had to stop and start writing this over a dozen times. I knew when I started this I would eventually arrive at this point, that the cold hollowness would make a return. It has. I feel trembly and so incredibly low. But you know what? I don’t need to visit a grave stone to pay my respects. Feeling these emotions, both good and bad are how I remember my Grandad, that is how I show my respect, by replaying the important moments of my relationship with him.
My Grandad died in 1995, aged 75. I think of him every day, usually with a smile on my face.
I miss him terribly.