So cast your mind back. It’s Hull, sometime in 1940s war time Britain. Much of the city was tormented by bombs. More than 1,000 hours were spent under alert during raids across the war period with at least 1,200 people killed. So it was normal for the air raid sirens to swear into the night, and families to pour into shelters and hope, against hope, that all would still be standing when they flicked into day time hours. The air was thick with smoke from the falling masonry and debris.
Out of this, emerged a man I never met but who has cast a regular shadow over who I am and what I’ve become. My paternal grandfather. I have never even seen a picture of him, although I imagine him like my father: tall and willowy with film-star, slicked back hair dark but not black. A sort of Lincolnshire Rhett Butler. A man with swagger and swash-buckling style (although the reality might have been somewhat different.) I am shaped by his absence because when folk die young they leave a kind of residue, a sort of promise of what they might have done: instead of fading away, or being subject to a shocking reduction as age weighs down even the most brilliant of souls. It seems you become what you’re not anymore unless you’re lucky and you’ve money and even then, even then, you cannot defeat aging’s relentless march – you cannot persuade fragility to bi-pass. If you die young, you die with what you could have become still open to speculation, as though life continues in some alternative universe.
My grandfather Arthur then, a yellow belly*, was a man destined not to go to the war – something he struggled to live with. I imagine him taking unnecessary risks: staying above ground longer than he should have done, skipping between strikes his face lit up by the bomber’s lights, or buying that extra pale ale in the pub. He wanted, I suppose to be like most men of that generation, to ‘fight for his country.’ (Even in my generation when the Falklands war began, all the boys in the sixth form common room at Sydney Smith High School said they’d go to war in a heart beat. Every single boy. And all the girls were shocked, looked at them aghast saying, “What for? You’d fight in a completely pointless war for Thatcher?” A row of ardent female pacifist against a battalion of Adidas Samba trainered boys with arms folded petulantly as if we’d somehow questioned the size of their manhood. Who were these boys we’d thought we knew? Who were they?)
So Arthur was no different. He wore a different uniform, one of overalls: marginally above the reserves but only just, and nowhere near the heights of the soldier. He was ashamed at having to stay behind in a reserved occupation, he did not want to be rigging ships. It didn’t seem like much when he’d wanted to fight like all his mates.
Fast-forward 90 plus years and I’m sitting in my neighbour’s house and he’s telling me how he’s built six boats in his time, one taking six whole years, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six years to build and rig: an echo of my grandfather Arthur, a man who influenced the main things (over-working, for example, over-working until it killed him, so they said) and I’m drinking my fifth pint of home brew worrying that I might regret it in the morning.
When I was 10 I realised what the lack of a father had done to my dad (he was 6 when Arthur died). My mother had threatened us with dad on his return from work: my sister had been caught shop-lifting and my mother was smart enough to know that if she had been up to no good, the chances were I had too. So began one of the longest days of my life – off school ill with a mother refusing to speak to me for company except to warn me at hourly intervals of the pain that my father would inflict with his belt, on his return. My sister arrived home at 4, all her cockiness gone (my mother had rung her at school knowing as a prefect my sister would answer the phone, and told her much the same as she’d told me: his belt would mark us for life and we would never be sticky-fingered again.)
My sister and I re-distributed food on our plates at tea time then went up to the bedroom to await our fate. When dad came home, he came upstairs. Then, the three of us entered into a kind of secret pact. He tried, he really did, to raise his belt, his hand, his temper but he really couldn’t so without any words spoken we, all three of us crying, pretended that he had done the deed. Somehow, in losing his father young, he didn’t know how to be that kind of dad and he became the kind who made it up as he went along. And the brutal but perfectly normal kind of working class man of that time who beat his kids for bad stuff didn’t exist inside my dad, who’d been brought up (and spoiled) by women.
And Arthur – for years I just knew that he died in the war. I imagined torpedoes, or bombs, heroism, laying his life down for another man. Instead, somehow or other, it emerged he’d died of untreated stomach ulcers, popped and bleeding: the pain of his non-combat role made manifest. And that legacy breathes fire into us all too: the tension held in the stomach, the never stopping, the driving onwards when the sensible option is to stop, take a breather and survive. Not Arthur and not his antecedents.
My replacement grandfather, Ernie came much later when my dad was in his teens. Ernie was something of a catch it seems. Or so my Guide Captain told me, when he’d rocked up at my Queen’s Guide celebrations in his late 70s and she’d taken me to one side and said, “Do you know that man?” her eyes strangely wide with something close to wonder. “I know him,” I said, “He’s my granddad.”
And then, in a sort of girlish breath (she was almost 60) she said, “He used to chase all the girls over the beds” which sounded more suggestive than it was, but still bad enough – Ernie had spent his working life as floor manager at Hammond’s departmental store. “No-one would get in a lift with him,” she said, darkly and then laughed – the kind of laugh I knew meant it was only half true and though Ernie was a Lothario, he was fun if you wanted flirtation (odd he ended up with my grandmother, who was oddly buttoned down.)
The old bugger always had a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind. “Aye,” he said, one time when I asked him about Arthur, “That fella was a pirate on the wild seas. That’s where you get your name from.”
And every single part of me wanted to believe it was true.
*a yellow-belly is someone from Lincolnshire