The most common advice given by writers to aspirants is to write about what you know (which doesn’t give much encouragement to the science fiction writers!)
I knew my childhood very well. I’d tended to be the central character in it, so I was drawn to write about it. I didn’t take my memory to be anything special, but the main comment the books received when first published was “how can you remember so much fine detail?”. I can remember the bubble of freshly laid tar in the summer and the workmen on the hot tar machine doing their fascinating black snail trail. I could feel the viscosity of the tar as I twisted it treacle like around a spent lolly stick and the absolute fear that I’d get it on my clothes. I’ve got five senses worth of stuff like this stored away in my random access memory, so much so in fact that I barely have room for stuff like where my keys are, why I’m standing looking in the fridge and what day I’ve got a doctor’s appointment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’ll be a gift to whichever residential home would be prepared to take me on,
I did realise that the reference points that I could have spoken with about times, dates, structures and outcomes were no longer with me, not least my mum, dad and brother Graham. So in part the first book was an attempt to celebrate the life that they had assiduously built for me. It was a rich life of colour and vibrancy in which the most important waypoints were always family occasions, and the rituals that attended them.
At the risk of becoming too personal, the attached photograph encapsulates the people at the centre of my world. The time is about 11.45am on 15th June 1969. It is the occasion of my older brother’s twenty first birthday celebration. This was as close as our family ever came to a formal family picture, which is a pity now as there are so few pictures of us all and they all tend to be wedding pictures. Not for us the joyous exposure of the Kodak Brownie and the trek to Boots to have our pictures developed on a regular basis. Once a year was, my father considered, more than enough time to devote to taking photographs. In fact on a couple of occasions, by the time the film was ready for developing, it was far past its processing date and the net effect of the smooth grey exposures was to hint that the camera had developed cataracts.
It was a chastening experience to rediscover this photograph and realise that I am the last one left alive on this print. It was sad as I consider that I was and remain the least significant of the people pictured here.
So in short, let me introduce you to the key members of my family and tell you a little about them.
In the back row, first up is my dad.
I can’t help thinking of my dad with some sadness. He was very stoical and had good reason to be. At key junctures of his life his talent and effort looked to be reaping rewards, only for circumstances to dash it away. He passed the 11 plus, or matriculation as it was then called, to enter the prestigious Rhyl Grammar School. However within two years, the Great Depression had bitten so deeply, that his father, a flogger – a layer of parquet floors, was laid off as house building stopped. My dad had to leave school and start earning, so a bright career, perhaps in a profession that involved his fantastic facility for numbers, eluded him. He started as a delivery boy for George Mason’s (The International Grocer) and in four years worked his way up to the point where he was being groomed for store manager training.
At this point fate intervened again and events in Europe led to him being called up to spend six years operating a 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun in some god forsaken places in the UK and then across northern Europe from Arromanches to Walcheren Island, where they shelled a German unit ceaselessly for trying to deny the allies access to the port of Antwerp. Finally he made it to the port of Wilhelmshaven, where he guarded what was left of the Kriegsmarine, including what he described as the beautiful battlecruiser, Prince Eugen.
The war over and looking very dapper in his demob suit, he returned home to find the opening at George Mason’s long gone and, as he was courting my mum, he needed to save for a wedding. The result was a manual job working on the Railway Signal and Telegraph Department on the Railways. From here he moved on to the newly opened Courtaulds factory at Greenfield near Holywell. The plant was the largest manufacturer of Rayon cloth in the world at one time. It stretched for what seemed like miles on both sides of the north Wales railway track. Like my dad, it is gone now and there is little trace of its stature left.
In his middle years though, he was finally rewarded with a role which was to suit him down to the ground. He was made a Justice of the Peace at about the time of this photograph. He finally sampled university life when he had to attend induction classes at Bangor University. I remember him nervously setting out on the Saturday morning, in his best blue suit, two packets of cigarettes and three of Polos to see him through what was going to be an onerous day.
He was from all accounts a fine JP, balanced and willing to look at each case carefully to ensure that justice was done and people received a fair hearing. Above the “lecky” cupboard of our sitting room in Prince Edward Avenue was a judicial calendar. On it was underlined in red pen with a ruler all the dates he had to attend court sessions. The same dates were marked in his judicial diary. All the papers related to cases and procedures were stored there , all filed and meticulous. I used to think that at least my dad had one day a month when he got to see what he could have been, and he could have been so much more than fate allowed him to be.
To be continued…