Category Archives: my Dad

Stories about my Dad (3)

In 1946, my Dad, Fred,  gave up his exciting job as a Brylcreem Boy of Bomber Command and signed up to be for what was called at the time “emergency training” as a teacher. It has always intrigued me as to how many veterans of Bomber Command became teachers. And I have my own ideas about that! Fred finished up getting a job quite near to his home, at a school in Hastings Road in Church Gresley. The school was built in 1898 for 420 children. Fred taught there until the mid-1950s.

Here’s a modern map of the area. The Orange Arrow points to where Hastings Road School used to stand before it had to be demolished in the late 1950s, lest the subsidence problems made it collapse completely with the teachers and children inside :

When my Dad, Fred, worked there, the vast majority of the children were the sons and daughters of miners, both of coal and of clay. They were all what you would call “rough diamonds”.

Most of them, therefore, were far from sophisticated, either in their knowledge or their behaviour or, indeed, their hygiene. Fred used to tell the story of having a boy in his class called “Stinky Roberts” . At the beginning of the school year, Fred was given the helpful advice by his colleagues never to let this particular boy sit next to a hot radiator under any circumstances. If he sits next to a radiator, then make him move!

Whether it was because Fred did not believe the other teachers, or whether it was because, in the absence of any particularly obvious hygiene problem, he quite simply forgot their advice, remains unclear.  But on one unfortunate day, when “Stinky” did get to sit by that scorching radiator, the wisdom of his colleagues became manifest, as the unbelievable stench of long unwashed filth and ancient, uncontrolled urine wafted inescapably around the room. In this way, Fred learnt one of the most important basics of teaching, namely that no boy is ever given a nickname without very good reason.

At one point, Fred had a bet with another teacher that he could leave his class working quietly while he went down to Lloyds Bank in Swadlincote to draw out some money. The pupils were told to behave themselves properly while he was away, and to continue with their work. This they duly did, and Fred won the bet.

In another variation of what was obviously the same story, Fred did not go down to the bank in Swadlincote, but instead, went to post a letter at the Church Gresley Post Office, a destination considerably nearer to Hastings Road School, and, from the point of view of unsupervised children, a much shorter, and therefore, perhaps, a more plausible time to be away.

One of Fred’s more pleasant jobs was the fact that he ran the school football team. He was partnered in this by his young friend, Vernon Langford. We do actually have a misty photograph of the staff at Hastings Road. Here it is :

The teachers are (back row), Mr Morris, Mr Roberts, Mr Baker, Mr Picker, Mr Goodall and Mr Knifton. The front row comprises Miss Rowe, Miss Smith, Mr Handford, Mrs Errington and Mrs P Middleton.

Fred’s teaching career at Hastings Road reached its pinnacle when he was conducting a lesson in Physics. At this time all secondary school teachers, even those who were trained to teach Geography, were expected to be able to turn their hand to more or less anything.

Fred’s brief was to demonstrate the effects of air pressure, so he took a pint glass, filled it with water, and then put a sheet of card over the top. He then explained that in a moment, when he turned the glass upside down, the contents would not spill out, because the air pressure on the card, which was equal to hundreds of pounds, was pressing down and keeping it in place. This news was received by the children, of course, with immense scepticism.

When Fred turned the glass over, however, perhaps as much to his surprise as anybody else’s, the rather unlikely result was that the card did actually stay in place, and the water did not spill out. The children’s reaction was astonishing. They were all totally amazed. One boy stood up, and shouted at the top of his voice, “A miracle ! A miracle ! Mester Knifton’s worked a miracle ! ” And then he ran out of the room and around the school, still shouting

“A miracle ! A miracle ! Mester Knifton’s worked a miracle ! ”

I believe that this incident was the closest that Fred ever came to being regarded as divine. Here’s a video of a mere mortal man trying out this trick:

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Humour, my Dad, Personal, Science

Stories about my Dad (2)

In 1946, my Dad, Fred,  left the Brylcreem Boys of the RAF and Bomber Command, and signed up to be trained as a teacher. He finished up getting a job quite near to his home in Hartshorne Road, Woodville. It was at the school in Hastings Road in Church Gresley. He taught there until the mid-1950s. In the 1990s, when I used to go and watch the local football/soccer team, Gresley Rovers, I met one or two of his erstwhile pupils who all remembered him, as a very strict teacher who brooked no nonsense. That might well have been because the teenage sons of coalminers at Hastings Road would have been a tough proposition to keep under control in classes of more than forty, especially for a first time teacher. I can quite well imagine that Fred would have had to employ what DH Lawrence, faced also with teaching the teenage sons of coalminers, called “three years’ savage teaching of collier lads”.

Here’s Hastings Road School. I have used one of the reprinted Victorian maps of England sold by Alan Godfrey . Hastings Road is in the middle of the eastern edge:

Notice how many “Old coal shafts” there are, even in this small area. Just after the war, there were up to 17 coal mines active in the area, as well as numerous vast open cast clay mines. Just try to imagine how small a human figure would be on this postcard, if those are full sized factory buildings in the background. Open cast clay mines were really gigantic…….

All of these activities, of course, left the entire area prey to subsidence. I found a very short article about this particular area on the internet. It said that

“…….the subsidence here was so severe the town’s plight became a national embarrassment. Schools, libraries and even entire streets were either propped up or knocked down as the town sank at an alarming rate.”

As a little boy in the late 1950s, we often used to drive up to Church Gresley to see the houses which had been damaged by the subsidence, which was produced by a 150-odd years of intensive coal mining. These houses were easily recognisable, being  propped up with huge beams of wood or extra long railway sleepers. Here are some of the less serious supports in a picture from a 1949 newspaper. I can remember enormously thick beams of wood when I saw them in the late 1950s. The houses must have been in an even worse state by then. Most of them had, in fact, been evacuated.:

The caption reads:

“SOME OF THE HOUSES IN CORONATION STREET” Built between the two great wars, and therefore comparatively new, as age is assessed in terms of bricks and mortar. There are nearly 50, supported by great baulks of timber, like those shown above and bound together with iron rods. Two are empty, being quite uninhabitable, and in others ceilings are falling, windows cracking and doors refusing to function.”

If the the houses were built in a coronation year, “between the two great wars” they can only date from 1936 and were thus only thirteen years old at  the time of the newpaper photograph. There is a very short video available.  The title refers to “Swadlincote” which is the name of the local area:

Thirty, forty years after my Dad had left Hastings Road School. I went to Hastings Road to take some photographs of the school. Alas, the buildings were no longer there, and had clearly fallen victim to the subsidence that I knew had claimed so many local houses. I began to investigate but I couldn’t find anybody who knew for certain the true detailed story of the demise of Hastings Road  School. Perhaps one day, the beams arrived, and the next day, before they could be put into position, the whole school fell down. That must have cheered up all those “collier lads”. Here’s the school today. Today’s pavement would have been directly in front of the school’s front wall:

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Stories about my Dad (1) Manchester Lane

Just after the war had ended, in 1947,  there was a horrendously hard winter in England, with huge amounts of snow, and much hardship for ordinary people, with the extreme cold and the continuing spectre of rationing.

Manchester Lane is a tiny country lane which runs between the village of Hartshorne and the hamlet of Boundary. As my Dad, Fred, used to live in Woodville, at either No 9 or No 39 Hartshorne Road (in red), he would make frequent use of Manchester Lane to produce a circular walk around the district. He would walk down Hartshorne Road to the very bottom, near to church with a square tower (cross “+” with a black square attached, and turn right at the Bull’s Head Public House (PH). He would then follow the summit ridge of Horn Hill, a route used since Neolithic times, and walk at last along Manchester Lane itself (in yellow) as far as the water tower (“Wr Twr”) at Boundary.  He then turned right and right again, and returned finally to Woodville along Ashby Road (in green), and then High Street (also in green). You can see his route on this map:

The orange arrow points to Woodville. Hartshorne Road is the red road running to the north east. In those days, it was very countrified…..

When he reached Hartshorne, Fred would turn right past the Bull’s Head, which dated from Georgian times, into Manchester Lane :

He was now in Manchester Lane which he followed for quite some distance. In 1947, this tiny country road was completely blocked by the snow. Indeed, the snow was so deep that the authorities, with the help of the RAF,  improvised an emergency snow plough by mounting an aircraft engine, complete with whirling propeller, on the back of a lorry. They then backed the vehicle into the lane, and it cleared the twelve feet deep snowdrifts without any problems.

This country road had always created a big impression on Fred, and he was forever going off for “a walk round Manchester Lane”. This healthy jaunt was around three or four miles long, and it would take at least a whole morning. It left behind the factory chimneys of Woodville and, once you got to Manchester Lane,  it went right out into open countryside, between leafy hedges and past green fields, with a splendid view looking back towards Hartshorne, Woodville and Midway. Fred never tired of the fresh air and the blue sky, the sun, the wind, the ever-changing faces of the weather and the varying aspects of nature.

Occasionally he would see a remarkable sight, such as one of his abiding memories, an old man well into his eighties, sitting astride the gable of his house roof on Manchester Lane, mending or replacing the broken ridge tiles. This is the cottage today, gentrified beyond belief:

On a darker note, Fred would often tell the tale of an isolated barn, in fields down to the south of the lane, which had been the centre of a deathbed confession by a man in faraway Australia. This macabre episode took place in the 1930s, when a farmworker who had emigrated from Woodville, well before the turn of the new century, lay dying in Tasmania, and asked to make his peace with God. He confessed that, years before, he had murdered a young woman and buried her body beneath the floor of a particular cold grey stone barn near Manchester Lane in far away England. The barn was something like this:

The Australian authorities notified their English counterparts of the man’s confession, and the calm tranquillity of the South Derbyshire countryside was soon  disrupted by the arrival of teams of policemen who dug up the floor of the barn, and indeed, a number of other similar barns in the area. They found nothing, although their researches were extensive. It remains a minor mystery to this day, why the dying man said what he said. Perhaps he just disliked policemen, or alternatively, perhaps he thought that many of them were too fat after all those donuts and needed to work off a little of their excessive weight.

The barn nowadays seems to have been swallowed up by the extended farm buildings at this farm. It may even have been demolished:

Whatever the case, this was a good place  to pause, and to take in the beautiful view. And then it was upwards and ever onwards to the right turn that would take him towards the old Toll House at Boundary:

Originally, the toll house was eight sided so that the toll keeper could keep a wary eye out for people who were approaching from whatever direction.  In addition, eight sided buildings are supposed to be immune to demonic possession, which is nice. Then it’s another right turn so that Fred could follow Ashby Road which would eventually become High Street and take him homewards. But there was more to see yet. A quarter of a mile beyond the Toll House was the Water Tower at Boundary:

Just after Ashby Road became High Street in Woodville, there is a small turn off which used to lead to a tiny farm which nestled among the shops and terraced houses. One day, when my daughter was just six years old, Grandad Fred took her to see the farm. It was lambing time and she was able to feed some of the newborn lambs with a bottle.  She will never forget doing this for the rest of her life. She will never repeat it though, because this is the turn off today. I just love our brave new world. It’s so interesting and so clean:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (1)

On February 17th 2021, I published a blog post about one of my Dad’s favourite poems, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, which was written in 1912. The poem concerned the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers in December 1900. This strange incident has never been explained once and for all, and I was asked for my own ideas by a number of different people. Unfortunately, the subject proved so complex that I was unable to do it justice in fewer than four blog posts, although, on the other hand, I would argue that all four are as interesting as any that I have ever written.

So here we go……..

At midnight on December 15th, the steamship Archtor, nearing the end of its voyage from Philadelphia to Leith, passed the Flannan Isle lighthouse which was not showing a light. Instead of two quick bursts of light every 30 seconds, there was just darkness. Captain Holman, however, was unable to report this fact to the Northern Lighthouse Board, because the Archtor continued its voyage, but ran aground in the Firth of Forth. The NLB, therefore,  were unaware of the situation until their own supply ship, the Hesperus, made its usual regular visit to the lighthouse on December 26th.  The Master of the Hesperus, Captain Harvie, at the first opportunity, sent a telegram to the NLB. The significant elements can be read below:

“The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

The “occasional” was a temporary replacement for a full time lighthouseman who was ill. His name was Donald McArthur. Donald was due to be replaced by Joseph Moore, the third Assistant Lighthouseman allocated to Flannan Isle, now recovered from his illness. Joseph was on board the Hesperus and Captain Harvie sent him ashore to search the island. Captain Harvie then reported to the NLB the two key things that Joseph found during his search of the lighthouse and the island….

“…. The clocks were all stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

Here’s Joseph Moore:

 

Joseph Moore also wrote his own letter to the NLB though, about what he had seen during his search of the island:

“On coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and store room, found it also closed and the door inside that, but the kitchen door itself was open………..

On entering the kitchen I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I then entered the rooms in succession, found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning.”

And………

“Mr McCormack and myself proceeded to the lightroom where everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc.”

The island is so small that it could be searched in a very short time…..

“We traversed the Island from end to end but still nothing to be seen to convince us how it happened. Nothing appears touched at East Landing to show that they were taken from there. Ropes are all in their respective places in the shelter, just as they were left after the relief on the 7th.”

Both sides of the island were not the same though….

“On the West side it is somewhat different. We had an old box halfway up the railway for holding West Landing mooring ropes and tackle, and it has gone. Some of the ropes, it appears, got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe.

The iron railings along the passage connecting the railway with the footpath to the landing and started from their foundation and broken in several places (sic), also railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast for boat, is entirely carried away.”

Joseph Moore could also work out how the men were dressed…….

“Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves. He never used any other coat on previous occasions, only the one I am referring to.”

Some of the evidence above is important. To end this blog post, I will write out some of the things discovered by the NLB and perhaps you can have a think about what they prove, or, indeed, disprove……..

The clocks were stopped

The entrance gate I found …..closed

The entrance door ….. found it closed and the door inside (as well)

The kitchen door itself was open

The fire was not lighted for some days

I found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning

In the lightroom everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc

Nothing appears touched at East Landing

Ropes are all in their places

And then there is that huge contrast:

On the West side……… old box halfway up the railway ….has gone……the ropes…… got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks.

The iron railings …….with the footpath to the landing …….started from their foundation and broken in several places…..railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast……. entirely carried away.”

Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves.

Next time, I will show you the conclusions of the NLB Superintendent who also visited the island. He, like Joseph Moore, was well aware that the box constructed to keep all the ropes and other equipment safe was 110 feet above the sea.

 

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (5)

When I was a little boy, my Dad, Fred, used to be a teacher at Hastings Road School in Gresley. Unfortunately excessive mining operations underneath the school led to its premature collapse.  My Dad is at the right hand end of the back row:

My Dad had to move to the Woodville Church of England Junior School, the school I attended, where, after a number of years, I finished up in his class, which was possibly Class 4. This is the school now.

One afternoon,  I can recall being one of the many children who were all so very frightened when my Dad read out to the fifty of us the narrative poem, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, written in 1912. Here’s the author:

The Flannan Isles incidentally are pretty much as remote as you can get in Britain. The orange arrow is 553 miles from London, in a straight line, slightly less than London-Berlin:

On an unknown date in December 1900, the lighthouse on Flannan Isle suddenly failed to shine. A few days later, when a group of lighthouse men came to investigate, they found that the whole island was completely deserted. The three lighthouse keepers had completely disappeared.

Fred used to recite this poem regularly to his classes, and I can still recall how intriguing many of us found this true story, and how animatedly and at what great length we discussed all the possible reasons for the disappearance of those three unfortunate lighthouse keepers only sixty years previously. We were all convinced that the men had been magically transformed into seabirds,  an absolutely horrific idea for nine year olds in that more innocent age of the early 1960s. Anyway, here’s the first section:

“THOUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.” A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The Winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight. But, as we neared the lonely Isle;
And looked up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
That sets the scene, although, initially, when I came back to this poem after 60 odd years, I was a little disappointed with the quality of the poetry. Gibson seems so often to add an extra phrase or an extra couple of words, when the poem would actually read better without them.
Anyway, a possible solution is hinted at by the description below of the three strange seabirds:
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we neared, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

Those three birds, guillemots or shags, were the very things that would go on to terrify a bunch of 9-year olds.

And still to ‘mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climbed the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seemed to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door—
The black, sun-blistered lighthouse-door,
That gaped for us ajar.

 

As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ‘t were some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we passed,
Into the living-room.
Actually, at this point, I might well retract what I said before. The further I went into the poem, the more I realised, that it is clearly meant to be slowly and deliberately declaimed out loud. Have a go. You’ll see what I mean. And sincere apologies, Wilf !
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor. We listened; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frightened children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listened in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—
A chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end,
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs, a glance has brought to heel,
We listened, flinching there:
And looked, and looked, on the untouched meal,
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.
Hopefully, you made it this far. It is definitely a great poem to be declaimed out loud. But you’ve got to take it slowly and deliberately. If you stumble at the words, go back and give it another go.
And here’s the three birds that we children all thought the lighthouse keepers had been transformed into:

In the future, I hope to produce some blog posts looking at the possible reasons that the three men disappeared.

Portrait of Gibson borrowed from poeticous

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (3)

Fred had two poems which he really enjoyed. I’m not so sure now that they didn’t both of them portray him as a man with a drink problem, insofar as they both have strong connections with establishments which sold alcohol, quite possibly in large quantities.

Anyway, the first poem of the two is called “Tarantella” and was written by Hilaire Belloc. The tarantella is a dance for two people which is supposed to mimic musically the very strong jerking spasms brought on by the bite of the wolf spider. The latter is a very large spider, but have no fear, there will be no pictures of arachnids here. Instead, just happy people enjoying a dance:

Those “strong spasms”, incidentally, are supposedly paralleled psychologically by the extreme emotions of falling in love.  In terms of the spider’s poison, however, love won’t stop the effects of the bite. Only dancing around like some kind of mad person can prevent the death of whoever has been bitten.

Here’s the first bit, a masterpiece of juggling with words, as the author tries to take Miranda back in time to one hell of a night that they shared years ago:

Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading of the straw
for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar,
And the cheers and the jeers of the young
muleteers
Under the vine of the dark veranda?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young
muleteers
Who hadn’t got a penny,
And who weren’t paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the din;
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Glancing,
Dancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of the clapper to the spin,
Out and in
And the Ting! Tong! Tang! of the guitar?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
The next five lines of the poem show, though, how that memorable night of years ago has disappeared for ever into the past, and, like all our experiences as human beings, it can never be recreated, however hard we try:
  Never more;
Miranda,
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.

One critic, Oli Foster, has called the last twelve lines of the poem “a lament for all lost experience.” The poem finishes with the even more pessimistic final seven lines…

No sound
    In the walls of the Halls where falls
    The tread
    Of the feet of the dead to the ground
    No sound:
    But the boom
    Of the far Waterfall like Doom.

One final fact is that we actually know the identity of “Miranda”. She was Miranda Mackintosh, a Scottish lady, and Belloc met her during a walking holiday, at the hamlet of Canranc on the River Aragon in the Pyrenees in 1909.

Belloc wrote the poem in 1929 as a souvenir for Ms Mackintosh and he gave it to her as a New Year’s present.

Belloc in his private life was a very controversial character and in articles I have read about anti-Semitic poets, his name unfailingly crops up, usually fairly early in the list. His other political views are, to me personally, quite extraordinary. One of the best things to read that I found was here. Another point of view is his Wikipedia page .

Next time, we’ll look at the other one of the two poems my Dad, Fred, enjoyed so much.

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (2)

Last time, I told you my Dad’s three favourite lines of poetry, which he would quote out loud at what he thought was the right moment.

Any mention of autumn, in any context, in real life, on TV, the fact that it was October, any of those would produce Keats’ line:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”

Sometimes he would manage the second line after it:

“Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”

Any bird high up in the sky, perhaps a skylark but definitely not an eagle, pigeon or airliner would produce Shelley’s line:

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,”

And then, Fred’s improvement on the lines by William Henry Davies:

“What is this life if so full of care, we have no time to stand and stare ? ”

Any mention of ships though, either in real life or on television, would set him off with some phrases, or even a couple of lines, from another of Fred’s favourite poets, namely John Masefield. All the family, therefore, soon became familiar with the various vessels of his poem “Cargoes”, and their home ports.  There was a “quinquireme of Nineveh ” and a “ stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus ” or, much more more likely in the North Sea off Skegness or Scarborough, perhaps, a “ dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack. ”

The first verse was a

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”

The second verse was equally exotic:

“Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.”

And here’s that very galleon:

In contrast, though, the third, and last, verse is about a ship of a much humbler origin:

“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”

And here it is:

And now, some of the meanings:

Nineveh was the ancient capital of Assyria. You can see its ruins on the opposite bank of the River Tigris from Mosul, in northern Iraq.

Ophir was probably one of the many empires which flourished either on the banks of the Nile or in the Horn of Africa. King Solomon received a cargo from Ophir every three years. It was a consignment of gold, silver, sandalwood, pearl, ivory, apes, and peacocks. Presumably, the quinqireme in the poem was on its way to Israel.

Amethyst is a violet variety of quartz. The name comes from the Greek “αμέθυστος“.

Moidores were a Portuguese gold coin of the early 18th century and then worth about 27 shillings.

Topaz is a silicate mineral of aluminium and fluorine with the chemical formula Al2SiO4(F, OH)2. Topaz crystallizes in the orthorhombic system, and its crystals are mostly prismatic terminated by pyramidal and other faces. (There will be a test next Monday).

As a preliminary to the test, which one is which? Moidores? Topaz? Amethyst?

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (1)

My Grandfather, Will, had apparently always loved poetry, and in this respect, his son, and my Dad, Fred, was to follow willingly in his father’s footsteps. This burgeoning love of rhyme was nurtured and encouraged by the fact that, like many children in the British Empire, Fred possessed a set of  “The Children’s Encyclopedia” by Arthur Mee, a famous, familiar and popular book of the 1930s:

Arthur Mee believed that the English, and in particular the English boy, were the “peak of creation”, although my mother, well familiar both with me and her husband, thought he was a madman. Each volume of Mee’s ten volume set of encyclopedias contained sixteen different themes or subjects and great prominence was always given to the Poetry sections, which were selected by Sir John Hammerton, a famous contemporary historian. Fred also liked the dinosaur pictures too:

Fred would often quote poetry, and his three favourite lines were……

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness ”

This is a line of Keats which was automatically triggered by any mention whatsoever of autumn. Or by a walk into a wood in autumn. Or a TV programme about autumn.

Keats’ best pal, Shelley, wrote the lines which are in second place:

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,”

These words would invariably emerge should any sighting of a skylark occur, perhaps during a walk alongside a field of corn. Quite often, it would be just any bird seen to be doing skylarky type things:

In third place came the rather wise, and arguably, slightly incorrect ……

“What is this life if so full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare ? ”

The correct version has no “so” and, surprisingly, no question mark:

“What is this life if,  full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare. ”

The poem was written by William H Davies, a Welsh poet, who spent many years as a tramp or hobo, in the United Kingdom and the United States. Presumably my Dad did not know that he was Welsh. Being Welsh was never a plus point with my Dad.

Fred always professed that his favourite poet was John Clare.  You can read about him in one of my early and probably over long posts, here.

And this is John Clare, perhaps “before” and “after” the boiled egg hairstyle became popular:

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In retrospect, I have always felt that Fred saw Clare as the simple, agricultural working class man, held firmly in his place in a world dominated by the upper classes, who were, for the most part as poets, fairly worthless and useless aesthetes, lacking Clare’s poetic talents, his intelligence and his capacity for accurate observation of the world around him. Perhaps too, as a native of the simple country village of Woodville, Fred could recognise the truth of the statement by Ronald Blythe, the President of the Clare Society, that the impoverished poet was “England’s most articulate village voice”.

It is not a giant leap, of course, to say that Fred probably saw his own life as directly paralleling that of Clare, denied as he was for purely financial reasons, the chance to go to a grammar school, and to have the same education as the more successful, and much less talented, upper class people that he would meet during the rest of his life, particularly in the RAF.

Given this love of John Clare, therefore, every time that he physically saw one running about, perhaps in a school playground when he was on yard duty, Fred would always identify this black and white bird as the “little trotty wagtail”, a phrase taken from one of Clare’s most frequently quoted poems:

Little trotty wagtail, he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he near got straight again.
He stooped to get a worm, and look’d up to catch a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.

Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.

Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pigsty,
So little Master Wagtail, I’ll bid you a goodbye.

 

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