Archive for the ‘Father’ Tag
Like many men, doctors were treated as a last resort by my father. Self treatment and medication came first, then putting up with it and only after considerable discomfort and encouragement would he seek medical help. A classic example occurred when he had an accident while on the way to work one morning. At the time he drove from Essex across central London and down to Mitcham every day. Just by Redbridge Station he was struck on the side of the motorbike by a car driven by a GP.
After all the usual exchange of details, and confirming he was uninjured other than a little pain in his ankle and the motorbike was undamaged he continued on to work. During the course of the morning my father found it increasingly difficult to walk as his ankle began to swell to twice its normal size. Eventually during the lunch break his brother, who worked in the maintenance department at the same factory, persuaded him to take off his right shoe and sock. His ankle and part of his foot had turned a deep blue and was now so swollen it had become immovable.
His brother Reg took him to the local hospital where an X-ray confirmed he had broken his ankle in several places. The doctors were very surprised the accident had happened more than five hours before and my father had driven a motorbike 30 miles across London in such a condition. The following six weeks must have been the most frustrating of my father’s life being unable to work or walk very far. However, for my mother, brother and I it was glorious time, one of the few occasions when the head of the household was at home during a weekday and not covered with grease and dirt from repairing his motorcycle.
There was a time when owning a motor car was like being part of an unofficial club. Drivers would look out for each other, stopping to help when the new and unreliable form of transport broke down or just to give directions in the days when directional signs were far less frequent. As the numbers of motorists grew the camaraderie faded and it become an everyone for themselves attitude. Motorcyclist tended to retain the club attitude and three-wheel drivers even acknowledged each other with a raised hand as they passed.
Helping motorcyclists and three wheeler drivers was an ingrained habit for my father. When ever we passed someone stopped at the side of the road he would stop to see if he could offer any help. Carrying a significant supply of tools and spare parts was the norm and many a time he managed to get some poor motorcyclist going again, or at least give them a lift to the next town so they could summon help. His good Samaritan act was not without its consequences however; travelling to his brothers wedding we passed a lone motorcyclist stopped at the side of the road who obviously had a problem as his chain lay in several bits on the road.
Dad proceeded to unpack his tool kit to locate the chain splitter and some spare chain links of the right size. After about an hour he had managed to get the chain repaired and refitted to the bike much to the surprise of the driver who was far from mechanically minded. My mother was furious at this act of kindness, not just because we arrived late but because my father’s wedding suit was now rather creased and covered with strategically placed highlights of grease. His brothers and sisters thought the whole episode was hilarious and typical of my father’s attitude to life.
I love fireworks, its a love created by my father who, in the 1950s and 60s used to bring home display sized monsters to let off in our small back garden. His relaxed approach to these dangerous devices was extraordinary, those that were supposed to be pushed in the ground would be held in his hand only protected by his motorcycle gloves. When Catherine wheels would not spin he flicked them with a finger to get them going. This attitude rubbed off on me and I started to experiment with pyrotechnics by modifying fireworks and taking them apart to see how they worked. By great fortune I never suffered any injuries other than very minor burns, although I did see one friend get badly injured when a banger went off in his hand.
The penny and two penny bangers were very versatile items, I used to make mini rockets by fixing a cocktail stick to the fuse part of a banger and fill matchboxes with the black powder extracted from body of bangers. I did try to make a small cannon with a short length of thick brass pipe and a ball bearing but could never get the black powder to really explode as the firing hole was too big. I then tried using the red heads of Swan Vesta matches as these would ignite simply by being hit very hard. I soaked the matches in water to remove the red heads which were dried on a rubber sheet.
The substance was carefully put into the brass tube followed by the ball bearing. A short nail was placed in the firing hole and then struck by a hammer. To save the ball bearing I aimed the device into a metal watering can. When I hit the nail there was a loud bang and the ball bearing shot straight through the bottom of the watering can and buried itself deep in the woodwork of the garden shed. Shocked at the power of the cannon the device was quickly disassembled and never used again.
For most of my childhood our family transport was a motorbike and sidecar. My father was a motorbike enthusiast and spent many hours tinkering with the engine, the garden shed contained a treasure trove of motorcycle bits, most kept just in case they may be needed, its a philosophy I continue to follow.
Being the younger of two brothers, I had to wait until my sibling chose not to travel with us to family gatherings or on days out before the privilege and thrill of being a pillion passenger came my way. Being allowed to sit behind my father while wearing a small white crash helmet and an oversized trench coat from the army surplus store was one of those moments when I felt grown-up.
Up until then I generally rode in the back of the sidecar, first behind my brother and then when he was old enough to be allowed on the back of the motorbike behind my mother. Riding in the back of the sidecar was never the most comfortable of places to be. The foot well was always full of tools and spare parts to keep the bike going however serious the breakdown. Inner-tubes, clutch and break cables, spark plugs, points, leads, light bulbs, even major engine parts were stored in several ex-ammunition boxes.
Driving to the shops this morning I was passed by a Reliant three wheeler travelling at 75mph or more. The event reminded my of my father’s antics as a long time owner of three wheelers, including a Reliant Regal Supervan III. He seemed able to coax a considerable turn of speed out of the 850cc engine and regularly had the needle of the speedometer straining past the top of the scale. No doubt the lightweight fibreglass body was a great help together with his knowledge of the internal combustion engine.
Much to my mother’s consternation, he barely slowed down for corners and roundabouts, preferring to navigate on two wheels while leaning across the engine compartment that separated the two front seats to help balance the vehicle. As a child I found these aerobatics very thrilling and the reactions of the other drivers as we overtook them quite hilarious.
Occasionally a driver would seem quite offended that they had been overtaken by a three wheeler and immediately increase their speed to over take us. There was, and I presume still is, a great deal of camaraderie between Reliant drivers. You would always acknowledge each other by a wave of flash of the headlamps. In car parks he would make a point of parking as close as possible to other Reliants hoping to exchange a few pleasantries, anecdotes or spare parts with the owner.
An allotment has become the must have accessory for the modern family. Where DIY once ruled the Sunday morning in suburbia its now Grow Your Own that has become the creed and the Allotment the place of worship. After a considerable effort by a group of dedicated enthusiasts our Parish Council was forced into providing a plot of land for the eager horticulturists. Six years later half the original allotment holders are still tilling the soil, some plots have been through several hands as individuals find the task of GYO too difficult, but all are being used and a small waiting list remains.
My father introduced me to the pleasures of growing your own food when he took on a plot in the late 60s. We were both new to vegetable growing and learnt together that nature needs a lot of help if you are to eat what you grow. Pests, diseases, drought, vandalism and the quality of the soil all need to be understood before success can be achieved. As any old gardener will tell you, work with nature and she will be your friend and feed you, fight with nature and she will be your enemy and you’ll starve.
At the moment I’m picking sugar snap peas, strawberries, wild rocket and cabbages; and by the end of the month there will be new potatoes, tomatoes, gooseberries and carrots. In fact this year the choice and quantities are less than normal as a long spring holiday coincided with the peak sowing and planting season, thus I’m about six weeks behind. Last year we went for over ten months without needing to buy any vegetables, all very satisfying.
Some events in one’s life can have a strange impact on your childhood. One Christmas I opened the pillowcase placed at the bottom of the bed and rummaged through the contents with all the usual glee and excitement. As I only really saw my father at weekends, most of the contents of the pillowcase were bought by my mother having helped me to write the letter to Santa that was sent up the chimney in a burst of magical flames.
On this occasion the contents of my Christmas sack included a thick but low cost colouring book. Inside the cover was a dedication from my father. For several days I kept the book safe and refused to allow anyone to look through the pages; and refuse to start filling in the pictures of clowns, animals and other everyday objects.
Eventually my mother enquired why I had hidden the book away, ‘was there something wrong with it? Did I not like it’? My response was to burst into tears. I was convinced that, as it was the only present he had written in, the one shilling colouring book was all my father could afford to buy and therefore I had to treasure it forever. I had never considered that almost all we ever had was bought by my father. Mother was the home maker. She was there every hour of every day, providing all we ever needed.
A deep throaty pulsating roar harmonised with the metallic ring of push rod driven tappets give the distinctive sound of a British built motorcycle. Passing majestically by is a Panther Redwing the motorcycle my father drove for over 15 years before the cold and his advancing years made him retire to the comfort of a Reliant Regal van.
His skill as a motorcycle mechanic was legendary. The 500cc single cylinder engine would be stripped, overhauled and rebuilt in a weekend, including fitting new cork pads in the multi-plate clutch and lapping in the valves. Gunk, Red Hermatite and Swarfega are smells that remind me of the Saturday afternoons spent in the garage behind the shops helping with the work on the motorcycle and learning the skills of an engineer.
Today, riding a motorcycle on our crowded roads is a very risky business. In the 60sand 70s you could get away with a burn-up along the country lanes of England and even when a mishap occurred there were no other vehicles on the road to add to the disaster. Now its a very different story, young, inexperienced drivers with big egos have become a hazard even to those who are in a car. The sound of a British Motorcycle has become a rare event, the sound of a car crashing far more frequent.
Yesterdays recollections reminded me of an event which was recounted to me by Uncle Alan after he and his two brothers went for a weekend trip in the boat along the south coast. They stopped at one of the south coast ports and embarked on a pub-crawl through the town. By the end of the evening Returning to the boat, Reg undressed then decided to empty his bladder before getting into the bunk.
As the edge of the boat was quite high he climbed up and tried to balance on the small ledge. Within seconds he slipped and headed down into the sea. Sliding down the outside of the boat his underpants were caught by a cleat. Every attempt he made to unhitch himself merely resulted in him slipping further down with a subsequent tightening of his underwear around his delicate parts. The pain caused by the constrictions to his marital prospects had an immediate sobering effect on Reg who called to his brothers to help.
Alan and my father, who were also rather inebriated, were overcome with hysterical laughter at the sight of Reg dangling over the edge of the boat and unable to help for several minutes. Eventually Alan cut through the underwear connecting Reg to the boat and he slipped into the sea. In Reg’s own words, ‘never was immersion in the cold sea more welcome’. It numbed the pain and allowed Reg to pee in comfort.’
My favourite uncle, Alan, who was something of an entrepreneur, owned a very slick powerboat that quickly became the focus of much entertainment for his two eldest brothers and myself. The general arrangement was to launch the craft at the Putney slipway and motor down the Thames to Southend, opening up the throttle as soon as we were past the pool of London. The boat would be stocked with fishing rods, food and the obligatory barrel of homebrew.
The first time we completed this trip we arrived at the end of Southend Pier just as the second of two five gallon petrol tanks reached empty. Alan had greatly under-estimated the capacity of the outboard engine to burn fuel when running at top speed. We had to spent several hours in the cold and wet walking the full length of the mile long pier to get the tanks refilled at the nearest petrol station. Ten gallons of petrol is heavy, even with the anaesthetising effects of alcohol.
I have never felt so exhausted as I did that evening when we returned to the boat having carried the full tanks back along the pier to the boat. We were very lucky not to have run out of fuel in the middle of the Thames estuary. The experience was a salutary lesson in how venerable you are when at sea. Unfortunately it was a lesson we were to learnt on several more occasions, worryingly before my father passed his RYA basic navigation course.